Thursday, June 28, 2007

This Blue Before reviewed by Mark Thompson

This Blue Before
Smiling Jack Smith
Thunder & Lightning Music
13 tracks/55:28

Every once in awhile, a dedicated music fan will discover an unexpected gem. These recordings have escaped widespread attention despite being innovative or just plain great !! The latest by Jack Smith is just such a surprise. It is a blast of fresh sounds and outstanding musicianship from a cast of unknowns. At least they are until you're done reading this review.
Smith is a former native of New Jersey who now resides in Madrid, Spain after a lenghty residence in Vancouver. He wrote all of the tunes, plays guitar and handles all of the vocals. Jack worked out the arrangements with his Spanish band, then traveled to British Columbia to record with production help from his friend, Pat Coleman. The project certainly proves that blues music has indeed become an international art form.
Several elements contribute to the success of This Blue Before. Smith wirites in a variety of styles and displays a knack for adding humor through a witty turn of a phrase. He sings with deep-toned, powerful voice with a bit of a rough edge to it. The tunes are fleshed out by a phenomenal three-piece horn section consisting of Phil Dwyer on tenor sax, Monik Nordine on baritone and Mike Herriot on trumpet & trombone. The trio play Coleman's brilliant horn charts with gusto and elevate each track with their fine work. Another key player is Miles Black. Whether on piano, clavinet or the B-3 organ, Black fills in the arrangements with inventive and tasteful displays of his keyboard mastery. All of the instrumental solos throughout the disc are compact and to the point - no grandstanding to detract from the proceedings.
Smiling Jack lays down a funky opening track as he tells the sad tale of having the "Deja Blues" all over again. Black establishes the tone on the clavinet with the horn section accenting Jack's vocal and his biting guitar solo. Smith has several tracks that examine different aspects of the blues. "The Blues Comes Back Again" explores the brief escape that comes from playing on stage. Black contributes several rocking piano solos on "The Blues Comes Back Again", which cautions not to get to comfortable with the good times. On "I Could Live with the Blues", Smith offers to make peace, if only "..the blues could live with me." In what has to be a first, Smiling Jack manges to build a song with a boogie beat around the Latin legal phrase "Mea Culpa". The title track closes the disc. It is a lenghty, dark meditation on the trials of life and love that serves as a contrast to the abundant good -time feel to the rest of the disc. Smith unleases a burning guitar solo before Black calms things down with his swirling organ phrases.
You owe to yourself to get a copy of this marvelous recording. It easily surpasses many of the blues releases on larger labels that I have heard in the last six months. Check out Smith's website to get a copy - and to help keep a smile on Jack's face !!!

Steady Rollin' Man and Kidney Stew is Fine reviewed by Mark Thompson

Steady Rollin' Man
Robert Jr. Lockwood
14 tracks/41:06
Kidney Stew is Fine
Eddie "Cleanhead" Vinson
10 tracks/37:31
Delmark Records

These discs are cd reissues of classic material by two giants of the Blues world. The Lockwood disc was his first recording as a leader after years as the first-call studio guitar player in Chicago. His is backed by the Aces - Louis Myers on guitar, Dave Myers on bass and Fred Below on drums. During the 1950's, the Aces were the band on the Chicago scene, backing a young Junior Wells and the legendary Little Walter.
The disc features ten tunes that Lockwood wrote, many of which remained in his repertoire for the rest of his career, like the title track, "Mean Red Spider", "Take a Little Walk with Me", and "Ramblin' on My Mind". Robert Jr. handles the vocals in his distinctive high-pitched voice. The Aces provide solid support with Louis and Lockwood sharing the guitar spotlight. The session never scales the heights of emotional intensity but on tracks like "Blues and Trouble", the interplay between the members achieves exactly what the title promises. This is a fine historical document of Robert Jr. at the start of his own career and gets extra points for including the Aces.
"Cleanhead" Vinson has been one of my favorites for a long time. His vocal style came from the "blues shouter" school. Vinson was also a fine alto sax player who easily mixed blues and jazz for his instantly recognizable sound. His 1969 session is a true gathering of giants as he is joined by T-Bone Walker on guitar, Hal Singer on tenor sax and the great Jay McShann on piano. The disc is a treat from start to finish, with Cleanhead in great spirits, singing with plenty of energy and the sly humor that found a place in much of his work . The introduction to "Juice Head Baby" quickly shows that Vinson was an accomplished alto player.
Several other Vinson compositions are included, tunes he would return to many times like the title cut, "Wait a Minute Baby", and "Old Maid Boogie". He also covers two Big Bill Broonzy songs. "Somebody Sure Has Got To Go" opens the disc with a tale of two-timing love and includes a fine McShann solo. The other Broonzy tune, "Just A Dream", finds Cleanhead slowing the pace as he ponders the possibility of a better world.
This session swings from start to finish. Walker and McShann provide stellar accompaniment throughout the disc. Vinson proves the the years had not robbed him of his talents, singing and playing with his usual high level of exuberance. If you have never checked out the work of Eddie Vinson, this recording is an outstanding starting point. But advised, you may find Mr. Cleanhead to be very addictive !!!

Live at B.L.U.E.S DVD and Gettin' Up DVD reviewed by Mark Thompson

Live at B.L.U.E.S
Jimmy Burns
Delmark DVD
Gettin' Up
Carey & Lurrie Bell
Delmark DVD

The folks at Delmark Records have been very busy documenting the Chicago Blues scene with a series of high quality DVDs that capture members of their roster performing at different Chi-town clubs. Burns was filmed in front of a packed house at one of the best-known clubs. He is backed by Tony Palmer on guitar, Greg McDaniel on bass and James Carter on drums.
Burns has had a lengthy career of over four decades before Delmark "rediscovered" him about ten years ago. His mixture of blues, gospel and soul creates a unique sound that is a breath of fresh air from the typical blues offerings. "Leave Here Walking", is a Burns original and makes a perfect opening track with it's haunting guitar riff and a driving beat. Burns sings with a powerful voice that can easily slide into the upper registers. Another great track is "Miss Annie Lou" which finds Jimmy pleading for a lady's attention before laying down a soulful guitar solo.
Burns wrote ten of the fourteen songs on the disc, with covers of tunes by Little Walter and Elmore James. Burns also covers two tunes by B.B. King. On one of them, "Three O'Clock Blues", the band is joined by Jesse Fortune who turns in a rousing vocal performance. Burns and Palmer provide some excellent guitar work. The video mixes in footage of the crowd, the barbecue and a fun exchange on the quality of the tamales. Burns even breaks out a slide to liven up things up on "Country Boy
in the City" and "Wild About You, Baby" before closing the set with an energetic take on another original, "Stop That Train".
Father and son are the focus on Gettin' Up. Carey Bell left a hospital in North Carolina, where he was recovering from a stroke, to get back to Chicago in time for the first session on this disc. Recorded at Rosa's Lounge, Carey shows no ill effects from his health issues. His vocals ring out with a rough-hewn edge and his harp playing is as strong and inventive as ever. Check out his use of the chromatic harp on "Hate to Leave you Alone", it's mournful tones setting the mood on this slow blues piece.
As good as Carey is, the real revelation is the outstanding guitar playing of the younger Bell. Lurrie contributes one hot solo after another, with one of his most dynamic forays occurring on a cover of "Baby Please Don't Go". On the second set, recorded three months later at Buddy Guy's Legends, there is a cool shot of Lurrie tearing it up on guitar with a mural of Buddy playing guitar visible behind him. Carey looks a bit more frail but he lays down some outstanding harp licks on "Last Night" before breaking into a spirited run through "Low Down Dirty Shame".
The real gems on this DVD are the last four tracks, recorded the day after the session at Rosa's. Filmed in Lurrie's living room, you get the opportunity to hear father and son playing for each other while sitting on the couch. They start with a brooding take of "Broke & Hungry", with Lurrie giving his dad a strong rhythm foundation. Carey lays down a vocal that is low on volume but brimming with intensity. At the end of the track, Carey asks if they got the track recorded. Getting an affirmative answers, he quickly adds that he hopes they got it. He knew how special the performance was. The duo turns in an equally strong rendition of one of Carey's favorite tunes, "When I Get Drunk". And then Lurrie closes out the disc with a passionate version of the gospel standard "Stand By Me" that may be the best piece of all.
Both discs were recorded with 24 bit High Resolution audio and offer a Stereo set-up plus Dolby and DTS surround sound, which make you feel like you are in the middle of the clubs. Both releases offer several tracks not available on the CD versions. The video is top-notch as well, making both of these discs a real treat. With the recent passing of Carey Bell, his dvd may be of more interest to our readership but I encourage you to give Jimmy Burns a chance, too. Thanks to the crew at Delmark and Bob Koester for these marvelous historical documents - and keep them coming !!!!

Miss Blue’es Child reviewed by Mark Thompson

Miss Blue’es Child
Eli Cook
Valley Entertainment
12 tracks/48:12

Recorded in 2005, this recording is Eli Cook’s first acoustic release. It is almost a solo effort with the only support coming from Patrick McCrowell on banjo and harmony vocals. Cook plays slide guitar throughout the recording, keeping the solos to a minimum in order keep the focus on the rhythmic thrust of each track. He also wrote four songs, including the title track.

The disc opens with a burst of snaky slide guitar on the Robert Johnson composition “Terraplane Blues”. When Cook starts to sing, it is hard to believe that the voice is coming from a twenty-year old. Eli has a deep, thick guttural growl with plenty of power. He doesn’t exhibit the range of tone or emotion found in the best singers but that will certainly come as he matures. It took several listens to the disc before I began to appreciate his distinctive vocal style. It certainly is suited to the hill country blues patterns that he favors on this recording. He easily pulls off an effective accapella version of Son House’s “Grinnin’ in Your Face”. The title track is a Cook original wit a foot-stomping beat and slashing slide riffs.

Cook turns in another strong performance on the traditional song “Goin’ Down South”, with McCrowell’s banjo helping to create an eerie aural landscape. “Highway Song” is a deep, brooding piece penned by Cook with some smoldering guitar licks. A couple of tracks disappoint as Eli doesn’t offer a new approach or fresh interpretation on the well-worn standards “Baby What You Want Me to Do” and “Irene”. The disc closes with a rev’ed up version of Booker White’s “Fixin’ to Die” with a tambourine driving the beat.

Cook ventures into the dark places that exist in the human spirit. His intense style may be too much for some listeners. Others will marvel at his ability to sound like a road-tested blues warrior. One thing for sure - Cook has a real passion for the music and this recording marks the start of a very promising career, even if he sounds like he has been at for decades. Check out Eli’s website for links to several live performances to get a better read on this talented young musician.

My Blues reviewed by Mark Thompson

My Blues
Todd Lorenz
20 tracks/63:24

Todd hails from Monroe, WI and sent me an e-mail asking if he could submit one of his recordings for a review. He has recently started performing live again and one of his first shows was in Rockford.

This disc is a selection of the best blues material from Todd’s first three discs. All of the cuts were written by Todd, who handles the vocals and lays down a steady stream of fine slide guitar on this solo effort. These versions were recently recorded to give listeners a more current, accurate indication of Todd’s talent and ability.

A solo recording doesn’t leave an artist anywhere to hide, especially when you are working with original material. Lorenz is able to make it work with ease. His slide guitar creates a solid rhythmic foundation throughout the disc, especially on tracks like “Hush Hush” where his rapid-fire licks add to the intensity of the performance. He has good range on the vocals and varies his approach enough to maintain interest.

The same could be said for Todd’s songwriting. He mixes standard blues licks with lyrics that often provide a humorous view of real life situations.
This quality is very evident on “Got Her Gone”, where the woman lays down a list of laws which Todd promptly uses as a roadmap to bring the relationship to an end. One has to wonder about his emotional state of being when he wrote “Even My Shoes Got the Blues”.

I listened to this recording on two long business road-trips. It held my attention both times. The best praise I can give My Blues is that, after hearing the disc, I want to see a live performance by Lorenz. We will all have a chance to do just that when Todd appears at Border’s Books in Rockford on Friday, July 6, starting at 8 p.m. Or go to his website and listen to some samples to see what you think.

10 Days Out reviewed by Steve Jones

10 Days Out
Kenny Wayne Shepherd
Reprise Records
CD 15 tracks
DVD 15 tracks
Bonus CD 2 tracks

I’ve heard complaints and criticism about Kenny Wayne Shepherd over the past few years. His last CD was such a departure from the blues and almost seemed like a blatant (failed? attempt at crossing over to pop. But there is also Kenny Wayne Shepherd the blues man. I saw him perform with BB King in San Diego a few years ago and was totally impressed with his unassuming attack on and conquest of 12 bar blues. I was shaking my head in awe, and so was BB King. When I saw he was producing a CD and DVD from his 10 day tour in 2004 where he went to the places where the roots of the blues run deep to capture live performances, I thought that this just might amount to something important. The CD/DVD set is more than something– it is a wonderful musical documentary that make us yearn for even more. Kenny and the boys from Double Trouble take a backseat to showcase a number of great bluesmen and women and have produced a smash hit. Kudos to Kenny for his superb effort.

The CD opens with Cootie Stark and Big Daddy Pattman, with Kenny in support of these lesser known but amazing artists from Tim Duffy’s Music Maker Foundation. Kenny is on their Board and is a major contributor to Music Maker. The train chugging harp sounds and strumming of some beautiful acoustic blues on the first track “Prison Blues” just whets the appetite for more, and Kenny delivers with almost 78 minutes of fine blues. The DVD repeats all but one of the songs and adds Pinetop Perkins with Kenny and the Muddy Waters Band performing “Got My Mojo Working.”

BB King is youthfully captured performing his standard “The Thill is Gone” with Kenny at BB’s annual Indianola MS Homecoming Festival. Hubert Sumlin, Henry Gray and Wild Child Butler lead the Howling Wolf Band with Kenny playing some wicked licks. Bryan Lee’s “Tina Marie” is a New Orleans staple and he and Kenny give the song a great cover. Gatemouth Brown give a classic performance on “Born in Louisiana;” it features Kenny, Double Trouble and some great fiddle work by Jimmy Wallace. John Dee Holeman, Etta Baker and Henry Townsend and Kenny turn out three of my favorite tracks from the set. Kenny respectfully plays along with these guitar pickers, turning in some truly good stuff.

Barnes and Noble also offered a 2 track bonus CD with Kenney and Buddy Flett and then Gatemouth, making this set even better. Get it. You will not regret it– it is one of the year’s best!

Solid Ice reviewed by Steve Jones

Solid Ice
Jimmy Thackery
Telarc Blues
11 tracks/62:52

Jimmy Thackery has spent 40 years on the road but recently spent 6 months off the road to write and produce this latest studio album. Jimmy had a chance to write and reflect on his music at home during this time. Unlike his last Telarc CD, this is a home spun album, recorded in his native Arkansas rather than the slick studios of Nashville. He penned the first 10 tracks, a soulful mix of bluesy, jazzy numbers, and finishes off the CD covering Jimi Hendrix’ “Who Knows.”
Jimmy’s vocals get down and growl for the first half of the opening song “Hit the Big Time;” his guitar solo then fills the second half of the song. “How Long” is the second track, another nice little retro-rocking tune, as is the next song “Fifteen Minutes.” This trio of songs feature a soulfully gruff Thackery on vocals with riffs and chords that hearken from rock-a-billy to some of the 70’s-early 80’s big rock songs.

Thackery then turns things around with a couple of instrumentals, “Hobart’s Blues” and Daze in May.” The former highlight’s Jimmy’s guitar virtuosity in the manner we’ve become accustomed to; it’s a super southwestern styled guitar track that Jimmy he switches gears and gives us a lazy little number that feels like he is shuffling and picking through a warm country day.

Switching gears again, “Blue Tears” is next. It is basically a country tune where Jimmy croons about lost love. He follows that with a song in another vein where he’s testifying and giving the advice to go looking for a “XXX Wife.” “I don’t want no women sharp as a knife...I don’t want nobody trying to change my life…I guess you might say I’m lookin’ for my triple-x wife.” He follows these lines with a jazzy stroll over the frets of his guitar that is just oh-so sweet.
“One or the Other” interestingly bemoans a relationship that has gone bad, a song that very remarkably sounds to me like a Dire Straights song (both vocally and on guitar). He spends over 8 minutes trying convince his love to “Talk to Me” with some amazing, wailing guitar riffs.

The title track is a very jazzy number where Jimmy just lays out some very sweet, slow guitar work for a bit over nine minutes. Jimmy stays slow and reprises “Blue Tears” instrumentally before going totally wild, fuzzed out and psychedelic on the Hendrix instrumental “Who Knows.”

Thackery runs the gamut of musical styles on this CD. He shies away from his typical Nighthawks and Drivers mode of revved up rides and takes a very introspective and fresh approach with the music he crafted during his “vacation” from road. I liked this CD a helluva lot; it shows some sides of Thackery that we rarely (if ever) get to see. Jimmy gives us glimpses of this sort of stuff in his live shows, but while at home and in the studio back in Arkansas he has brought us rock-a-billy, classic rock, soul, jazz, blues and country all in a cool little Solid Ice package

Crucial Blues (3 Releases) reviewed by Steve Jones

Crucial Rockin’ Blues
More Crucial Guitar Blues
Crucial Acoustic Blues
Various Artists
Alligator Records

Alligator has just released a new trio of low priced “Crucial Blues” albums to follow up on and continue in the tradition of the five that they have previously put out. For those who would like to sample from Alligators’ catalogue in a variety of blues styles, these 3 CDs and the prior 5 are great ways to see what Bruce Iglauer and Company have to offer. Cuts range from old to new, and all are true to the form advertised in their titles. And for those with more extensive collections of albums, it brings a great sampler from CD’s you may not have in your collection.
I began listening to the new set with “Crucial Rockin’ Blues.” “Last Dirty Deal,” the title track from Coco Montoya’s latest release, is the opening song and sets the stage well for a total of 12 driving and rocking tunes. The oldest of the selections comes from Lonnie Macks’ “Strike Like Lightening” CD, where he and protégé Stevie Ray Vaughn wail away on “Hound Dog Man.” Dave Hole, Roy Buchanan and Johnny Winter tracks come from Alligator’s younger days while the likes of Tinsley Ellis, Lil’ Ed and Lee Rocker fill out the CD with newer selections. The Holmes Brothers, Shemekia Copeland, Guitar Shorty and the Paladins are also featured on this hot little CD.
A dozen of Alligators kings of the ax are featured on “More Crucial Guitar Blues,” a follow-up to their first-ever “Crucial” series release. From Chris Vachons’ steamy solos in the Roomful of Blues “The Love You Lost” from their “Standing Room Only” album back to Son Seals’ “No, No Baby” from his “Midnight Son” CD, we get a great assortment of guitar tracks from the Alligator catalogue. If the likes of W.C. Clark (“Okie Dokey Stomp”) and Little Charlie and the Nightcats (“You Got Your Hooks in Me”) don’t get you going then Albert Collins, Lucky Peterson, Kenny Neal, Elvin Bishop Lutehr Allison, Michael Burks, Long John Hunterand Lonnie Brooks will. You will find it difficult to dislike any of this cuts featuring the best of Alligator’s six string gun slingers.
I saved the CD I thought might be the most intriguing for last. “crucial Acoustic Blues” features a baker’s dozen of selections from non-amped up CD’s that Alligator has given us. Buddy Guy and Junior Wells begin the fun from their “Alone & Acoustic” 1991 CD with a great version of “High Heel Sneakers.” Lonnie Mack with SRV and his brother Billy McIntosh give us a trio of acoustic guitars picking “Oreo Cookie Blues” next. By the time Carrie and Lurrie Bell begin the third track, I knew I’d kept the best for last. I love good acoustic blues and Bruce Iglauer has collected a nice set of songs and artists for this collection. Ann Rabson and Saffire give us one of my favorites or theirs “Sloppy Drunk” from their “Hot Flash” album. Steady Rollin’ Bob Margolin with Nappy Brown, John Jackson, Kenny Neal & Billy Branch, Corey Harris, Cephas & Wiggins, Johnny Jones and Billy Boy Arnold, Johnny Winter, Sonny Terry and Koko Taylor round out a nice blues album that does not need a lot of high powered histrionics to make a statement.
These are great set of compilations and a low priced way to build your blues collection plus they are packaged all together on the Alligator web site so you will save even more money. It’s a great deal on some great music!

Live At B.L.U.E.S. reviewed by Harmonica Joe

Live At B.L.U.E.S.
Jimmy Burns
Delmark Records
12 tracks

Delmark Records released "Jimmie Burns Live At B.L.U.E.S." in February of this year. This CD features the recently formed Jimmie Burns Band with Jimmie Burns on vocals and lead guitar, Tony "Fret Burner" Palmer on rhythm and lead guitar, Greg McDaniel on bass and James Carter on drums. The mix of music includes Chicago blues, soul, R&B, and a funky rock-type blues so there is something for all of us to enjoy.
Jimmie Burns has shared the stage with the likes of Buddy Guy, Magic Slim, Billie Branch and Pine Top Perkins to name a few. Although he has played various genres of music including soul, R&B, gospel and rock, he has now returned on this CD to the real deal blues. Jimmie's vocal style is very crisp country blues with easily understood lyrics and a lot of feeling. His guitar style has great tonal quality and ranges from slow blues to boogie type tunes.
Right from the first track of this CD, "Leaving Her Walking," you will know that this is one good recording. Jimmie's vocals and guitar solos grab you and make you listen. What a great tune to start with! Next is an upbeat tune written by Jimmie called "Better Know What You're Doing." This funky type song has some great lyrics and Jimmie's guitar solo will get and keep your attention. "Country Boy In The City" is another standout track. We get to hear Tony Palmer shine on this one with a really good guitar solo. Joining the band on B.B. King's tune "3 O'Clock Blues" is Jesse "Mr. Fortune Tellin' Man" Fortune. This tune is a great addition to this entire CD project as Jesse puts his whole heart and soul into his unique vocal style.
OK, I can't leave out the one harp tune on the CD. Jimmie does a fine job on the Little Walter tune "Can't Hold Out Much Longer" which is a really neat drag down blues tune. Jimmie's harp solo, in my opinion, is fantastic. I would have liked to have heard one or two more harmonica tunes.
If you have not heard Jimmie Burns, I would recommend that you get "Jimmie Burns Live At B.L.U.E.S." It is really one outstanding recording. This live recorded show is also on DVD with two bonus tracks. I would really like to catch this band live on stage somewhere. Jimmie Burns also has three other Delmark CDs: "Leaving Here Walking," "Night Time Again," and "Back To The Delta."

Old School reviewed by Steve Jones

Old School
Koko Taylor
Alligator Records
12 tracks

When I first heard this album I said to myself, “Koko is back.” It’s been seven years since she’s recorded a CD and she had major medical problems in 2003, but Koko is certainly as physically resilient as her music. From her opening holler on “Piece of Man” to the final Willie Dixon cut “Young Fashioned Ways,” I sat and listened intently to this for the first time as I drove in my car. Then I listened straight through again. And then a third time. I didn't stop. Hell, I couldn't stop. This is one fine album and should be listened to uninterrupted from start to finish to appreciate what Ms. Taylor can still do.
Koko returns to the style and sound of her early Chicago roots with this all-star supported CD. She has basically two mixes of artists supporting (her except on the last song). She labels the studio musician lists as “A,” “B” and “C.” The “A” list is Steady Rollin’ Bob Margolin and Criss Johnson playing guitar and alternating solos, Billy Branch on harp, Kenny Hampton on electric bass, Jimmy Sutton sometimes alternating with Sutton on standup bass and Willie Hayes on drums. The “B” list also contains Johnson, Hampton, Sutton and Hayes, while adding Brother John Kattke on piano and Mark Kazanoff on tenor sax. The “C” list for the last track is the Blues Machine, Vino Loudin (guitar), Shun Kikuta (guitar), Stanley Banks (piano), Melvin Smith (bass) and Ricky Nelson (drums).
I was intrigued when this album came out as to how Koko would be sounding. That was pretty much addressed at the start with her tune “Piece of Man.” Then she does another upbeat tune that she penned called “Gonna Buy me a Mule.” By the third cut with Margolin’s dirty sounding slide guitar solo with Koko’s gritty vocals on the Lizzie Lawler/Memphis Minnie tune “Black Rat” I was sold that Taylor is as dominant as she ever was.
I will admit it that Taylors’ pipes are perhaps beginning to show her age, but she can still belt out a song with the best of them and she is in no way ready to give up her role as the Queen of the Blues. Whether covering Magic Sam’s “All Your Love” or her own stuff like “Hard Pill to Swallow” she shows us what she can still do.
In the liner notes Koko talks about her roots picking cotton and then her early days in Chicago. This CD musically returns to those early Chicago roots from over 50 years ago. There is a great photo from around 1954 in Sylvio’s Lounge with Koko, her husband Robert and other family members and friends (including Muddy Waters and Otis Spann).
Koko gives us a great mix of covers and new tunes for well over an hour on this CD. She shows us that she can still strut her stuff on songs like “Bad Rooster” and we should be glad that she still can. This is a fine effort from Koko and the folks at Alligator Records and it belongs in your music collection.

Country Ghetto by Steve Jones

Country Ghetto
JJ Grey & Mofro
Alligator Records
12 tracks/

John “JJ” Grey and his band Mofro hail from the swampy outskirts of Jacksonville, Florida. Their music is a fusion of blues, pop, rock, soul, and funk. They have no bass player but use horns and keyboards to infuse a sound unique to them. They are not flashy or urbane. They are pure, unadulterated swamp.
Grey is a great songwriter and the band is tight. The lyrics and music are both top notch. The 12 songs pack a punch that makes the listener sit up an pay attention.
Alligator has done well of late with their CDs from artists on the fringes of the traditional blues. Last years’ Eric Lindell CD and this one show us where the blues can go, having evolved, absorbed and reinvented into a plethora of great sounds.
The title song describes the proud, poor life in the South with lyrics like, “Starve to death before you live by a government handout ⁄ They call us poverty ⁄ ⁄ Life in a country ghetto.” The opening song “War” also has hard hitting lyrics with a driving 60’s-esque beat, which hearkens back to anti-war songs from the Vietnam Era.
The tune “Mississippi” is a funky, swampy sort of adaptation of Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition.” It is a cool little piece and is one of the better cuts on the album.
"Making our latest album was a whole different thing. I finally got the opportunity to get my family's gospel group singing on a track ("The Sun Is Shining Down"). That, along with horns, strings, and some hot female background singers made for some really special moments." JJ made these comments in reference to a tune he crafted. Using the line of lyrics from the chorus of “Battle Hymn of the Republic.” “Glory, glory, halleluiah,” he opens the chorus of this song; yet it is not purely Gospel nor purely blues. It is Mofro.
Speaking of Mofro, those of you concerned about not being familiar with this word shouldn’t be concerned. It’s really not a word. When asked by Tim Parsons of the Tahoe Daily Tribune how he came up with the name MOFRO, JJ answered, “Just working at the lumber yard. I worked there nearly 10 years and they're all good friends of mine. We would just be like 'What's up MOFRO?,' 'Hey MOFRO,' and all that. I was like, that's a good enough name to call something. It sounded Southern but didn't mean any particular one thing. It could mean a lot of things to anybody. So I said 'OK, I'll just call it MOFRO.'“If I had to find one flaw with the CD, it would be the song sequencing for the last 4 cuts. Grey presents us with a a ballady blues number, the slowed down swamp-a-funk “Mississippi,” the rather slow Gospel/blues song and then concludes with “Goodbye.” “Goodbye” is a great little song and the title and lyrics make it a great way to close the album, but Grey just slows and slow and slows and slows in these four songs and the album just grinds to a halt. That’s not bad, but I might have sequenced a faster tune in between there somewhere. Not a huge flaw from an album that I liked so well I went out and bought a copy for myself before I even wrote the review. It’s a little of the Allmans mixed with Skynyrd and Motown with a little country and Cajun thrown in for good measure. Not a bad recipe for success.

Tell Me What You Say reviewed by Steve Jones

Tell Me What You Say
Fruteland Jackson
Electro-Fi Records
11 Tracks/52:32

Fruteland Jackson is a long-standing friend of our Crossroads Blues Society. He has done many Blues In the Schools programs in the Rockford area and thousands of students and adults in our area have benefited from his programs. Frutelands’ music and blues education along with his talent have been something we have grown to appreciate and savor over the years.
His newest album on Electro-Fi Records features some great new songs and covers, ranging I topics from the sentimental to the hard hitting. From “Happy Birthday Blues” and “You Are My Sunshine” to “Blues Over Baghdad,” we have Fruteland running the gamut of emotions/ He is equally adept at fretting over birthdays (a recurring theme in his music) and covering traditional songs in new ways to lamenting over the war in Iraq. “War is not for those who are right, but for those who are left” is the profound closure to the latter song. He poignantly expresses his feelings over the war as no one else can.
In “The I.R.S.” he has blues over a tax audit, something we can all appreciate especially during our annual tax season. His new songs often describe the blues in the form current topics.
Fruteland’s approach to the blues is traditional yet he always makes his music sound fresh. The sonorous tenor voice with its’ wavering vibrato make any of his songs a joy to listen to. His vocals strongly evoke the sadness of the blues comes out in tunes like “My Baby Left Me All Alone in E Minor.” On the other end of the spectrum of emotion, he brings in the excitement a gambler experiences in “A Gambler’s View.”
Although Fruteland may not take kindly to his middle age, we sense a maturity in his work that evolves from where he is in his life. Frutelands’ newest CD is a great effort and it is worth more than one listen. If acoustic blues is your bag, then this is a CD for you.

Painkiller reviewed by Steve Jones

Tommy Castro
Blind Pig Records
11 tracks/42:51

Tommy Castro is a soul rocker. Plain and simple. He approaches the blues from the rocking edge of soul, and his newest CD “Painkiller” continues in that vein and takes him to new levels of excellence.
The opening song’s initial riffs of “Love Don’t Care” wind you up, and get you to the top of the Castro roller coaster and then it’s non-stop rocking. “I’m Not Broken” is next and it’s off to the races. I think my favorite track is a bouncy number with a lot of horns called “Big Sister’s Radio.” It’s the story of how the tiny, tinny little transistor radio pulled in music from all over and exposed a generation to great music back in the late 50’s and the 60’s. It was not the big fancy stereo that people learned from but the little transistor radio in the evening, pulling in the AM radio waves from hundreds and sometimes thousands of miles away. Having my own little transistor radio in my youth, this song brings back fond memories of searching for and finding some great tunes across the dial. It was so cool to find all the big radio DJs dishing out the platters. I almost feel for today’s MP3/Ipod generation; the download is pretty cool and amazing but I don’t think it compares to finding someone blasting out 50,000 watts of AM power with some rock-a-billy or soul tune playing. But I digress…
Castro struts his stuff and his fans will love this album. I think it surpasses most if not all of his CDs in song quality and performance. He’s got some great new material and the horn section just blows you away.
Tommy has a superb supporting cast on this album. In addition to his band mates of Randy McDonald (bass), Keith Crossan (sax) and Chris Sandoval (drums) there are also a lot of great supporting musicians who appear. Angeli Stehli provides exceptional support on vocals in the ballad “If You Believe (In What You Do),” one of only three slower songs on the CD. Coco Montoyo’s guitar and vocals blaze in a duet along with Castro on the hottest number on the CD “A Good Fool is Hard to Find.”
Castro is a hugely talented singer and guitar player who I think has often let his material hold him back in the past. This CD matches his talent with some great tunes, both new and reworked. Not only that, it melds all of this with his soul. rock and blues style into a wonderful CD with a set of tunes you can’t find fault with. I enjoyed this CD immensely and I think you will, too!

Morning Sun reviewed by Mark Thompson

Morning Sun
Diana Braithwaite & Chris Whiteley
Electro-Fi Records
13 tracks/40:47

Here is a sparkling little gem of a release – all acoustic with original material throughout.Braithwaite is a vocalist with an extensive resume that includes time in Chicago. Whiteley is a multi-instrumentalist and singer from Canada who has played with legends like Blind John Davis and Lonnie Johnson. Each contributes five songs to the project and they co-wrote the other three tunes.
For inspiration, the duo looked to the records from Bluebird Records from the 1930’s and 40’s. The opening track, “Cold and Lonely Night”, has the pair trading the vocal with Whiteley on acoustic guitar laying down a steady groove with help from Al Cross, who uses brushes on the drums. On “Birds That Whistle”, Whiteley uses a National steel guitar to demonstrate his proficiency on slide guitar. Braithwaite's vocal range gets showcased on this track. Her voice has a lighter tone then the typical female singers belting out blues with deep, dark voices. But she doesn't have any trouble conveying the pain in her original piece, "No Longer Will I Roam". Whiteley adds some great, down-home harp playing in addition to his fine guitar work.
Another highlight is "Box Car Blues", a humorous look at the trials and tribulations of several shady characters in their quest to get right with the world. The track gets the full-band treatment with Whiteley blowin' a cornet while his brother, Jesse, adds his piano and Drew Jurecka contributes alto saxophone. This performance sounds like it was cut in New Orleans when Louis Armstrong and Jelly Roll Morton were kings. Whiteley gives his harp a workout on the country blues track "In My Garden". Through the magic of over-dubbing, he can also be heard on this cut on guitar, lead vocal and laying down a solid rhythm on the spoons!
The disc closes with the title track, a gentle folk-blues tune. Whiteley picks the melody on an acoustic guitar as Braithwaite's strong vocal hints at some gospel influences. It is a fitting end to a recording that is a refreshing change of pace from the seemingly endless onslaught of amped-up electric blues. Diana Braithwaite and Chris Whiteley obviously have a plenty of passion for the music of days gone by. But instead of simply recording their favorite old songs, they have taken the time to compose their own songs that capture the spirit of the by-gone era and then bring them to life with their spirited performances. This one is recommended for discriminating listeners.

Edenton reviewed by Mark Thomspon

Kemp Harris
Righteous Mischief, LLC
11 tracks/ 39:47

This is the second recording by Kemp Harris, a name I was not familiar with prior to receiving this disc. He is primarily a singer who also plays some piano. Harris wrote three of the tracks and had a hand in composing four other cuts. He covers tunes by Memphis Slim, Willie Nelson and Donny Hathaway/Leroy Hutson. The Holmes Brothers contribute backing vocals on three tracks.
Harris works in the territory where blues and gospel music intersect. The lyrics cover faith and religious themes while the music sometimes settles into a blues rhythm that would be right at home at any club on a Saturday night. At other times, Harris displays a high level of originality that shapes the music into exciting performances that demand your attention. Listen to his acappella version of the traditional gospel hymn “Didn’t It Rain”. Harris’s voice is up to the task of laying out the spirited lead vocal. He is joined by his mother and aunt on backing vocals that are strong enough to make you forget that both are close to 80 years young.
That song is followed by a cover of “Mother Earth”, featuring a big beat and some wicked slide guitar from Josh Stoltzfus. “Miles Between Us” is a smoldering slow blues examining the end of a relationship. Harris belts out the vocal on the first one, then goes deep inside for the intensity needed to make the second track come to life. He holds his own vocally on “Sweet Weepin Jesus” and “Day After Day”, not at all intimidated by the presence of the Holmes Brothers.
Accompanied by a lone acoustic bass on Nelson’s classic “Nightlife”, Harris is free to let loose with a powerful vocal performance that manages to capture the tune’s loneliness and regret before he starts to testify in the style of the best soul singers. The title track finds Harris on piano for a song that explores racial tension in his hometown.
Kemp Harris has a unique musical vision that takes you to some of the dark corners of life before lifting you up with the spirit of redemption that comes from faith. He has crafted a disc that can be challenging, offering many rewards to those willing to take the time to give this work some serious listening time.

Magic Touch reviewed by Mark Thomspon

Magic Touch
John Nemeth
Blind Pig Records
12 tracks/44:27

This is Nemeth’s debut recording and you can tell from the line-up of heavyweights backing him on the disc that he has talent. Anson Funderburgh handles the role of producer and adds his guitar to one track. The rest of the time, Junior Watson does his usual stellar job of providing killer guitar licks. Ronnie James Webber from the Fabulous T-Birds adds bass and the three-piece horn section includes Mark Kazinoff on sax.
Nemeth handles the vocals and adds harmonica to several tracks.
The disc opens with “Blues Hit the Big Town”, featuring a tough groove highlighted by Nemeth’s use of the upper register on his harp. The following track, “Blue Broadway”, ventures into the world of Soul music. Nemeth has a voice really suited for this type of material. He easily slides from a husky mid-range to a pleading vocal at the high end of the scale. His cover of “She’s Looking Good” comes close to capturing the excitement of Wilson’s Pickett’s rendition of the song.
The disc offers equal helpings of blues and soul with Nemeth’s vocal range able to handle the demands of both. He slows the pace and goes deep down in the alley on “Sit & Cry the Blues”, punctuated by Watson’s guitar and a closing solo from Kazinoff’s sax. On the title track, Nemeth whoops and hollers over a blasting horn section before John Calhoun Street finishes the track off with a rousing piano solo.
This is a very strong recording throughout, an impressive achievement for a first release. Nemeth has the vocal chops to handle a variety of material, which allows him to mix soul and blues influences into a compelling collection that is fresh and exciting. Add the contributions of Junior Watson to the mix and you have a disc that will bear repeated listens.

Wish I Had You reviewed by Mark Thompson

Wish I Had You
The Rounders
Blind Pig Records
13 tracks/53:33

Hailing from Okalahoma City, the Rounders are a five-man band with their first major label recording after two self-released discs. They feature a twin guitar attack from Ryan Taylor and Michael Stone with Dave Spindle on bass and Stuart Williamson on drums. Brian Whitten handles the lead vocals.
The disc opens with a surging boogie rhythm supporting Whitten’s baritone voice on “God Knows I’m Trying”. The band is able to create a sound quite close to that of the Mississippi hill country popularized by the late R. L. Burnside and kept alive by his extended musical family. The Rounders prove it is no fluke by laying down another strong performance on the title track. They are able to capture the feel of the old blues masters while updating the sound for a new generation of listeners raised on rock and hip hop.

Musically , the disc will grab your attention and not let go. Taylor wrote eleven of the tracks and had a hand in writing the other two. You won’t hear any self-indulgent displays of instrumental virtuosity. Instead, the band takes full advantage of the strong melodies Taylor provided . His music isn’t fancy, featuring basic blues progressions in inventive settings. The band focuses on the rhythmic groove and rides it for all it’s worth.
As dynamic as the music is throughout the disc, Taylor needs to do some wood shedding on writing lyrics. Several tracks have a few phrases repeated numerous times, which makes it difficult to paint any kind of compelling verbal picture. Whitten makes a valiant effort to add weight to the writing through his vocals but a couple songs, like “Wait For Me” or “Leave My Trunk Behind“, don’t give him much to work with. Still, the Rounders are able to overcome simplified lyrics by playing the hell out of Taylor’s arrangements.
When everything comes together, the Rounders rock hard. Check out “Let Me Talk at You”. Whitten turns in his best effort as his booming vocal rides on top of the guitar power chords over a pumping bass line and a driving big beat from Williamson. Another highlight is “It Wasn’t My Baby” which finds the band exploring Chicago-style blues on a track that sports a memorable guitar riff.
The Rounders clearly have a lot to offer. They have managed to preserve and update the Blues tradition in the same package. Wish I Had You goes beyond promise to deliver an exciting package of inventive music. When the band figures out how to write lyrics on a par with Taylor’s music, these guys will be really dangerous.