Friday, January 18, 2008

Hope Radio reviewed by Mark Thompson

Hope Radio
Ronnie Earl & the Broadcasters
Stony Plain Recording Co.
www.stonyplainrecords. com
11 tracks/ 78:23

On his fourth release for Stony Plain, Ronnie Earl is turned loose on a live audience for an amazing live, all-instrumental recording that will dazzle you with sparkling musicianship. Earl and his crack band are able to explore a wide range of emotions without the help of a vocalist and keep your attention the entire time. The audience certainly appreciated the efforts of Jim Mouradian on bass, Michael "Mudcat" Ward on bass and piano, Lorne Entress on drums plus Dave Limina on piano and Hammond B3 organ. These guys have been backing Earl for a number of years and it shows in tight foundation they create on every track. Limina shines on the B3 every time he touches it and proves on his solos that he is Earl's equal.

It's hard to single out specific tracks for attention on a disc filled with gems. "Katrina Blues" catches your ear by virtue of being a solo acoustic performance by Earl, who plays with a simmering intensity that captures the despair, and hope of rebirth, of the terrible storm. It is followed by "Wolf Dance", a tribute to Wowlin' Wolf that uses the familiar riff from "Smokestack Lightning" as a starting point for one of Earl's exceptional explorations of the blues guitar tradition.

"New Gospel Groove" opens the disc with Earl's guitar spitting out notes over thick chords from Limina's Hammond organ. At times, this cut resembles the sound of the original Santana band, albeit without the extra percussion. Even though he grew up on the East Coast, Earl quickly demonstrates on "Blues for the West Side" that he would be able to handle himself on the stage of any blues club in Chicago. The band builds to an emotional peak before dropping way down to give Earl a chance to prove he is just as effective at low volume levels. On "Blues for Otis Rush", Earl captures the spirit of the legendary Blues guitarist without imitating Rush's style. It is another tour de force performance by Earl that commands your undivided attention.

The final track brings the proceedings back to church with "New Gospel Time". Whether he is burning up the fretboard or carefully picking out just the right note , Earl consistently plays with emotional depth, speed and precision without even a hint of showboating. The Broadcasters match his every move to make this a must-hear recording. Too bad Earl's health does not allow him to tour - I'd love to hear this band live. At least I have Hope Radio to remind me of what I am missing !!!

Back in Mississippi Live reviewed by David Stine

Back in Mississippi Live
Grady Champion (featuring Eddie Cotton Jr.)
GSM Music Group LLC, Canton MS.

There are a couple things that keep this CD from being a great live party album: Grady’s irritating (at times) voice, Eddie Cotton’s over-the-top and irritating guitar tone, and slamming a slow tribute to Grady’s mother (and all mothers) at song 9, which changes to the whole tone of the CD.

Recorded live at the 930 Blues Café in Mississippi on 7/7/07 in front of a live audience (although there is very little audience noise), the Grady Champion Revue is a cooking little band. If you wade though the poorly-written and horrendously-punctuated liner notes (LOTS of periods), you discover that Grady started out as a rapper who rediscovered the blues. This is Grady’s second CD and first live recording. The CD kicks off with an intro by Eddie Cotton Jr., which moves into “I’m Ready.” However, we are not ready for Grady’s Koko Taylor-like voice and affectation. Unfortunately, Mr Champion decides that this is his “blues” voice and uses it ad nauseam throughout most of the CD. Coupled with Eddie Cotton’s need to use a piercing guitar tone and rattle off staccatos of notes here and there, the CD, for me, was a chore to listen to. Like I said, have Grady sing in a normal voice, tell Eddie to clean up his tone and slow down and this wouldn’t be a bad CD. Throw the slow songs to the end with the bonus Christmas song (“Blues on Christmas”) as a bonus and this whole thing would hold together WAY better.

The CD takes off for me at song 4 when Grady gives up the covers and does his “You Got Some Explaining To Do” an up tempo soul/blues number. He hits again with his “1-800-Blu-Love” and “Policeman Blues” (also a video). The latter ends with some rapping by guest Jacktown Swiff. Somewhere during the performance, Grady yells this is the future of the blues. If he means blues-to-rap, I’m not buying it. From here, we get Grady’s reading of “Spoonful,” followed by his “Lonesome Bedroom Blues,” murdered again by Eddie Cotton’s need to overdo things. At this point the CD (and live performance) have been clicking along at a nice dancer’s pace when suddenly, in creeps “Love and Memories” which Grady dedicates to his mother and all mothers. And thus the CD’s momentum is lost. Even following this tune with B.B.’s “Why I Sing the Blues,” and Grady’s “Wine and Women” never really recovers the groove. Another slow ballad, “I’m Yours” leads us to “Blues for Christmas” (probably released as a single to blues radio. Will this song be another classic in the Christmas blues canon--no, but it’s OK.

The Charles Burton Blues Band reviewed by Dave Stine

The Charles Burton Blues Band
Charles Burton Blues Band
12 tracks

This is a self-funded CD (read Disc Makers) that came without much side information but with a very nice letter. The Charles Burton Band (Charles: guitar and vocals; drummer, Eduardo Sabogal; and bassist, Rick Nash) hails from San Diego, CA. From the minimalist artwork (just some photos) I didn’t know what to expect. Charles Burton is a tall man with a bald head who resembles, somewhat, any number of villains on TV detective shows. The first song on the CD, “I Wouldn’t Lie To You,” is a typical 12-bar mid-tempo blues tune employing the over-done graveled up voice. My first reaction was, gosh, not again--BORING. At song 2, “Cuba” Burton leaves familiar and clichéd blues territory with a nice samba-esqe instrumental ala Wes Montgomery. Song 3, “You Can’t Treat Me That Way” is familiar walking blues tune that Charles guitar hook makes it unique and enjoyable. A “Crosscut Saw” riff begins song 4: “Big Eyes.” The Charles Burton band seems to favor non-standard blues backbeat drumming for a samba-type beat. Maybe it’s the SoCal location. So just when I think I’ve caught on to their thing, song 5, “This Little Number,” swings out of the speakers dripping of B.B. King/T-Bone Walker. This is yet another car/girl double entendre tune but Charles hooks gets a pass from me. Shoot, the guy wrote everything, so I’ll give him a break. Song 6 again shakes me, wakes me back into the James Gang era of my youth. The funky “How We Do It Downtown” demonstrates another side to this versatile band.

“My Baby Don’t Love Me” is a slow blues that is satisfying if nothing new. “Swing It” which follows is Les Paul without the overdubbing--a very nice instrumental. “Block Party,” the next song is one I’d like to re-write to fit the end of a day at New Orleans Jazzfest where there are literally miles of block parties. Burton’s version involves a car breakdown that turns into a fun time. Hmmmmmmmm, seems there are quite a few car references on this CD. And yes, “Block Party” is VERY samba influenced, but this time with Albert Lee-like country licks over top. Thanks for asking. Song 10 (if you’ve been counting) is pretty standard blues fare and the closest the CD has to “filler.” “I’d Like To Know” is perhaps my favorite on the CD mainly because of the cool chords Burton throws in on top of yet another “Crosscut Saw” beat, again with country guitar licks. The last song on the CD, “Pull Her Over,” is a rockin’ blues tune (again with a car) that brings a nice close to what ended up being a very enjoyable CD experience. Pluses for Burton are that he only gravels up his voice twice; he doesn’t play long solos and what he plays is tasty; and he has a tight band that can play outside of the standard blues box. I look forward to more from The Charles Burton Band and hope to see them live somewhere.

Howlin’ Wolf: In Concert 1970 reviewed by David Stine

Howlin’ Wolf: In Concert 1970
Howlin’ Wolf
Rounder/Vestapol DVD

Having never seen Wolf live, I was anxious to review this rare video of a full Howlin’ Wolf concert featuring his long-time backer and one of may all-time favorite guitar players, Hubert Sumlin. The concert is from 1970 at Washington D.C‘s. all-black Howard University. The disc begins with interviews of a cross section of this area of D.C.’s blacks being asked if they know who Howlin’ Wolf is. Very few do. This sets up the concert where Wolf comes on to the stage on all fours to explain in almost painful detail about he is the one and only, the original Tail Dragger, THE Howlin’ Wolf.

Now, before I continue, we must remember at this stage in his life, Wolf was 60 years old; he had been in a bad car accident; he was receiving kidney dialysis; and I believe had already had one heart attack. That being said, I wasn’t prepared for the on-stage antics--bulging his eyes, crawling, loping, and his many facial expressions--being interspersed with moments where he seemed lost and unaware that a concert was going on. I had prepared myself for the big man who rode a mini bike on stage, climbed curtains, and made men and women afraid. Sadly, this concert wasn’t a shining moment for Wolf. I kept thinking, too bad this isn’t from 1960 rather than 1970. Wolf, at this point, was 6 years away from his untimely death.

So, how is the concert? Well it’s shot in B&W, the sound is uneven (Hubert Sumlin seems closest to the mic); some shots are unfocused; and some lyrics and utterances are drowned out by Hubert Sumlin and Sunnyland Slim. The highlight of the DVD is the added, shot-in-color, afterthought “bonus” of Wolf doing “Sitting On Top Of The World” with the Wolf Gang-era band. The Howard University concert is marred by songs being cut short to fade to equally hard-to-hear interviews with Wolf and Sunnyland. The cameraman during these interviews seems to be sitting on the floor, looking up at his subjects, while Hubert Sumlin, unaware that video is being shot, noodles on guitar and piano somewhere in the room.

The concert songs, in order, with comments are as follows:
1) “Highway 49“--Sumlin’s guitar drowns out almost everyone else, except Sunnyland, who is playing an electric piano that at times sounds like a second guitar. This songs sets the tone of the video: Sumlin’s fantastic, if overpowering guitar, great complimentary accompaniment from Sunnyland Slim; an almost inaudible S.P. Leary on drums; nearly audible solid bass work from the only white guy, Randy Joe Fullerton, and the aping, almost vaudevillian stage antics of Wolf. Is it entertaining yes; is it embarrassing yes. But I am looking through the highly-sensitive, PC lenses of 2007. What the mostly black audience of 37 years ago saw, I’ll never know. Here too, we are prepared for the sloppy camera work and unbalanced sound. Again, was this shot to capture the moment--like a home movie?--OR did the crew look ahead to documenting a piece of blues history. If, the latter, I wish they would have taken a bit more care.
2) “How Many More Years”--A good version that is preceded by backstage conversations with Wolf and Sunnyland about the blues progression from Mamie Smith, through Robert Johnson, to the electric blues. (Guitarists will have been glued to the video by now trying to figure out how and what the brilliant Hubert Sumlin is doing.)
3) “Killing Floor”--A great song almost marred by Wolf’s antics.
4) “Howlin’ For My Darlin’”--cut short by the editors need to include more interview footage. Shame, shame, shame.
5) “Back Door Man”--Not as dynamic as the record, but good just the same. Again, cut short for interviews.
6) “I Want To Have A Little Talk With You”--a good example of the “disconnected” Wolf. He seems to just not care here. Lots of inaudible stuff.
7) “Smile At Me”--Again, sort of a throw-away. More inaudible asides.
8) “Declaration Day”--concludes the concert. See comments on 6 and 7. I believe the bonus footage was added to end the DVD on a high note. By this point in the concert, Wolf appears to be ready to call it a night. I believe his health was declining, so I will not complain.

All in all, it is a video worth having if you’re a Wolf fan. I know of no other full-concert footage. Hubert Sumlin’s playing is the glue that holds the songs together and is a delight to guitarists everywhere. Sunnyland’s electric piano stands on it’s own merit and is a great accompaniment to Sumlin’s lines--at times sounding like two guitars. Yes there are sound problems: you can’t hear S. P. Leary--a great blues drummer--at all! The camera work seems somewhat amateurish. The sound man follows the sound, sacrificing the visual at times. A better introduction to Howlin’ Wolf is The Howlin’ Wolf Story, but again, this video captures a legend, with a crack band, on a given night in blues history, and for that reason alone is worth owning--faults and all.

Play It Til Tomorrow reviewed by Steve Jones

Play It Til Tomorrow
Nick Moss and the Flip Tops
Blue Bella Records 2 discs, 28 tracks

When I heard the new Gerry Hundt CD when we were preparing the last newsletter I was hoping the new Nick Moss CD would also be a great effort. Lots of new material, the multi-talented Fliptops band (Gerry Hundt on bass, harp and guitar, Willie Oshawny on keyboard and Bob Carter on drums), guest work by Barrelhouse Chuck, Eddie Taylor Junior and Nick’s wife Kate and, best of all, not one but two CDs awaited my listening. 28 tracks listed, 24 new songs, one CD plugged in, one pretty much not, and a very ‘60’s looking psychedelic CD cover looking very Tommy James and the Shondells-like; this had to be something special. So I put the CD in the machine and sat back in great expectation.
“Late Night Saint” opens the first set, a breezy little number featuring the regular band and Eddie Taylor. Not bad; stuff I’ve heard the band do this sort of stuff, but not bad. Eddie Taylor comes in to lead with Nick on the opening guitar work in “You Make Me So Angry.” The tempo is up and so is my interest. Kate, Mrs. Nick Moss, fills in the rhythm guitar on track 3, a tune entitled “Women Don’t Lie.” Another bouncy little track, but I’m still not completely sold. “Mistakes from the Past” up next opens up with some dirty Nick Moss licks and now the radar alerts are starting to go off. The lyrics penned by Nick are selling me, too. The fretwork and upbeat tempo on the old Lefty Dizz/Walter Williams “Bad Avenue” on the next track had my heart beat up and I could picture the beads of sweat starting on Nicks’ brow as he got the chords and licks out perfectly at a breakneck speed. The distortion and edge he puts on this one make it a super cover with a nice new spin. Probably the best track on the first CD.
So now that I’m sold, I settle in a for a continued stylistic stroll and shuffle through Chicago’s South Side blues a la the talents of Nick and his band. Oshawny’s key work is always crisp and clean while the beat by Carter is impeccable. And what can one say about Gerry Hundt that we haven’t already said about him? No mandolins here, just some great rhythm guitar and bass work. And then there is Nick on lead guitar, harp and most of the vocals. Nick is right in the middle of the sonnics with the band surrounding him to the left and right. Really impressive stuff.
The second disc moves us from the South Side to the juke joints of the Delta. Gerry fills in with a lot of mean harp playing while evening breaking out the old mandolin on the one cover song, the spiritual “I Shall Not Be Moved” with he and Nick singing a moving duet. Their instrumental duet on “Fill ‘Er Up” pits Nick on guitar and Gerry on Harp, a superb interplay between two fine artists. Barrelhouse Chuck’s familiar keystrokes open “Got My Mail Today;” gut-wrenching, impressive stuff.
I could go on and on but won’t for spaces’ sake. This is probably Moss’ best effort to date. The sounds are tight and closed like a small studio or club on the Southside or a Mississippi juke joint, the blues played as it should be. Buy this CD– you will play it over and over again!

On the Chicago Blues Scene reviewed by Harmonica Joe

On the Chicago Blues Scene
Sleepy John Estes - Delmark Records
13 tracks

"Sleepy John Estes - On the Chicago Blues Scene" was originally released in 1968 as "Electric Sleep." Now, in 2007, Delmark Records and Bob Koester have done a fine job of remixing and remastering this treasure of blues. This cd has a new name and a new cover but represents the coming together of one great country blues artist and a fine electric blues band.

Sleepy John Estes' vocal quality is unusual to say the least. It has been said that he is "crying the blues" or that he "has a voice older than his age." Whatever it is, it is pretty much one haunting voice. It is a voice that makes one listen to every word and say that this song is done with real feeling.

Joining John on this recording is a real great combination of musicians. Carey Bell's playing stands out through-out the cd. I really enjoyed it especially on "How to Sing These Blues." Carey also plays the bass on some tracks. Also on the recording are Jimmy Dawkins on guitar, Earl Hooker and Joe Harper on bass and Odie Payne Jr. on drums. Sunnyland Slim rounds out the band doing one fine job on the piano.

Sleepy John managed to keep his traditional blues background alive wherever he played. Putting this quality together with the electric band just works well. His melancholy vocals really make his blues lyrics have meaning and bring out his meaning of the words. This style of blues needs to be preserved and heard by more of us blues fans!

All the tunes on this CD were written by Sleepy John Estes. We all have heard the song "Divin' Duck Blues." I was not aware of who wrote it until now. This is my best-liked song of the cd. The bass player really stands out on this one. Sunnyland Slims piano chops are outstanding as are Jimmy Dawkins guitar licks. But, " if the river was whiskey and I was a divin' duck, I would dive to the bottom and never come up" tells the whole story.
There is not a single track on this cd that I do not like. Sleepy John's lyrics, vocal style and the fine band on this cd make it a real winner. Sleepy John was also known to be able to fall asleep standing up, hence the name "Sleepy John." Well he did not fall asleep on this project.
There is not a single track on this cd, that I do not like. Sleepy John's lryrics, vocal style and the fine band on this cd make it a real winner. Sleepy John was also known to be able to fall asleep standing up, hence the name "Sleepy John." Well he did not fall asleep on this project.

Tell Me Why reviewed by Steve Jones

Tell Me Why
Alex Wilson
Rathskeller Records
11 tracks

Alex Wilson is an extraordinary young local talent who I have great expectations for . I met Alex in Big Cites last December at a gig there. He hails from the Milwaukee area and comes from a family with strong roots in blues and jazz from Chicago to Milwaukee.

His grandmother Rose Saviano was a Chicago Jazz singer. His father Tom has accompanied most blues legends passing through Chicago and Milwaukee. His uncle Marc is a drummer who has played and toured with the likes of BB King, SRV and Ronnie Earl. Suffice it to say that music is in his blood.

Before I went to Big Cities to listen to him, I did not know much about Wilson. I had heard that he and his band’s sound was good and that he was pretty talented. What I found was an enormously talented bluesman who has such great potential. I stayed for the entire show and I was so pleased to have done so.

His vocals and presence remind me a younger, non-Cajun version of Tab Benoit. There is a softer, kind of sultry side to his vocals that remind you of Tab, and when you hear him growl out something it’s even more apparent. I asked Alex about it and he coyly apologized for not having ever heard Tab sing live or on a recording. He is a very humble kid. Couple a great voice with a hugely talented guitar player and you have Alex; I really do think he has the potential to be big in the blues world!

I picked up his CD, the first he has done and popped it in the car as I drove home that night. I was equally impressed with it as I was with his live work.

From the opening strains of “I Like to Play” to “You Used to Know Me,” we hear Alex sing and play through nine original and two covered tunes. Billy Boy Arnolds’ “Rockinitis” gets a good treatment by Wilson as does Magic Sam’s “Lookin’ Good.” Madison Slim’s harp coupled with Alex’ vocals are superb on these cuts. Wilson’s guitar is also impeccable. The CD features the likes of his uncle and Craig Panosh on drums, his Dad, Andre Marritato and PT Pederson and Nick Moss on bass, Slim, Ken Saydak on harp, Bob Welch and Jimmy Voegeli on keys to name but a few. The original cuts are all solid and display the talents of this great young musician, Alex will be at Big Cities again on Sadie Hawkings Day (Feb 29). I recommend that you not miss this show!