Monday, May 18, 2009

Dopers, Drunks and Everyday Losers reviewed by Mark Thompson

Dopers, Drunks and Everyday Losers
Commander Cody
Blind Pig Records
14 tracks/45:47

George Frayne - alias Commander Cody - burst on the scene in 1971 backed by his band, the Lost Planet Airmen. Country music was mixing with rock to create a new hybrid. When Cody mixed truck-drivin’ songs with rock & roll and even boogie, he had a harder edge than the country-rock bands of that era. The band hit it big with their cover of “Hot Rod Lincoln”, the only track on their first album that featured the Commander on lead vocals.

Fast forward 37 years and Cody is back with a new band that still rocks when they aren’t doing tear-in-my-beer tunes. Several classic Airmen-era songs are revisited. “Wine Do Your Stuff” has drummer Steve Barbuto on lead vocal backed by some exquisite pedal steel guitar from Chris “Tiny” Olsen. Guitarist Mark Emerick trades licks with Olsen on “Semi Truck”. The Commander often introduces “Seeds and Stems Again” as the saddest song ever written. The latest version has Circe Link spinning the tale of despair. She has a beautiful voice, almost too good to capture the world-weary resignation of the original.

The energy level gets cranked-up several notches on “Lone Ranger” with Emerick showing that he is no slouch on guitar. The Commander shows off his skills on the piano on “It’s Gonna Be One of Those Nights”. Another highlight is the humorous “They Kicked Me Out of the Band”. Emerick lays down some monster guitar riffs as Cody itemizes the list of his band mates’ betrayals. “Losers’ Avenue” is a boogie-woogie piano workout for Cody.

Some tracks don’t work well. A cover of John Hiatt’s “Tennessee Plates” falls flat while “Seven Eleven” serenades you with lyrics encouraging listeners to pilfer beer from the convenient store chain. But the Commander regains his footing with another piano showcase on “Last Call for Alcohol”. The disc closes with “Hoyt Axton’s “No No Song”, with Professor Louie’s accordion enhancing the tongue-in-cheek warning about drugs and tequila.

Cody may not have made much musical progress over three decades but his blend of styles still has some magic left. Long-time fans will feel the years fall away when they give this disc a spin. It’s great to have Commander Cody back to entertain us.

Bridges reviewed by Mark Thompson

Mary Flower
Yellow Dog Records
14 tracks/50:15

Mary Flower may not be a familiar name to most blues fans but those fortunate to have been exposed to Mary’s artistry are undoubtedly captivated by her talent. Flower started out as a folk singer in the Denver area. After attending a blues guitar workshop, she switched careers and developed her skills as a guitar picker. She has two “Top Three” finishes in the National Fingerpicking Guitar Championship that attest to her ability. Her strong voice is a dark-hued instrument that easily glides from to note without a hint of strain.

Having relocated to Portland, Oregon, Flower has called on a cross-section of that city’s diverse musical community for assistance with her latest project. The title refers to the structures that span the Willamette River in Portland as well as the mixing of newer tunes with the classic songs that serve as the foundation of the blues genre. Take a listen to Mary’s version of Emmett Miller’s “The Ghost of St. Louis Blues”. The backing from clarinet, soprano sax, piano and tuba pushes Flower’s guitar to the background as they update this obscure late 1920’s tune. “There Ain’t No Sweet Man That’s Worth the Salt of My Tears” is another older jazz tune with Duffy Bishop and Rebecca Kilgore supplying excellent harmony vocals. Janice Scroggins shows her skill as a piano accompanist when she joins Mary on “Backwater Blues”.

“Columbia River Rag” is a solo guitar piece with Flower picking intricate patterns with an easy grace. Even more impressive is “Daughter of Contortion” a Flower original that updates the difficult Piedmont style. Her son, Jesse Withers, adds his string bass to “Slow Lane to Glory” and “When I Get Home I‘m Gonna Be Satisfied“. Mary switches to the lap steel guitar on both tracks and proves that she is well-rounded guitar player.

“Portland Town “ takes some good-natured jabs at Mary’s new hometown. Her voice rings out over the unusual backing of Courtney Von Drehle on accordion and Matt Vehrencamp on tuba. Flower is joined by an old friend, Tim O’Brien on fiddle, for Hoagy Carmichael’s “Up a Lazy River”. The two instruments engage in a delicate musical duet until Flower’s vocal closes the track with a spirited verse and chorus. Featuring O’Brien on mandolin, Von Drehle on accordion and Flower on guitar, “Blue Waltz” is a fitting closing number. The piece has an easy-going tempo with a hint of sadness. As the track unfurls, the three instrumentalists take turns moving in and out of the spotlight, weaving an intricate musical fabric while making it look easy.

As good as her last several recordings were, Bridges may be the best work of Mary Flower’s career. She has obviously found acceptance for her unique musical vision within the Portland musical community. Some listeners might wish for more of Mary’s stellar guitar work. Most of us will appreciate the quiet grace of this package Mary has put together. It is a moving collection that deserves a wide audience.

Live at Chan’s – Combo Platter No. 2 reviewed by Mark Thompson

Live at Chan’s – Combo Platter No. 2
Nick Moss & the Flip Tops
Blue Bella Records
10 tracks/79:12

As great as their studio recordings have been, Nick Moss & the Flip Tops are one of those bands that have to be experienced live to really capture their true essence. Name one other touring blues bands whose members can switch one instrument for another like a game of musical hot potato without the overall sound of the band suffering. This is a veteran group who have honed their music to razor-sharp edge on stages throughout the world.

One of their favorites is Chan’s in Woonsocket, Rhode Island. Moss returns for his second release of live material from the club. Recorded July of last year, this high energy set lays out all of the strengths of powerhouse band. The instrumental “Spare Ribs & Chopsticks” opens the proceedings, giving Nick a chance to showcase his prodigious talent on guitar. Whether he is firing off biting, lightning-quick riffs or squeezing a note for all it’s worth, Moss grabs your attention and never lets go.

The next track, “Try to Treat You Right”, finds Nick’s wife, Kate, taking over on bass so that Gerry Hundt can concentrate on harmonica. Hundt has developed a powerful, rich tone on the harp and his playing pays homage to past masters of blues harp without being a slavish imitator. Willie Oshawny fills out the arrangement with some dazzling runs on the piano. The next musical switch finds Hundt doing the vocal for his original, “Whiskey Makes me Mean”, which also features Gerry on mandolin while Nick sets down his guitar in favor of the harmonica. The pace slows down on the classic Curtis Jones tune “Lonesome Bedroom Blues” but the intensity level never wavers. Listen to the way Moss’s guitar; Hundt’s harp and Oshawny’s piano do an intricate dance around each other. “Fill ‘Er Up” is another instrumental that further establishes Hundt’s formidable talent on the harp, pushed by drummer Bob Carter’s strong beat.

The last four tracks burn even brighter as the band is joined by special guest Lurrie Bell, who immediately demonstrates on “Don’t Lie To Me” why Moss refers to Lurrie as the best at classic Chicago-style blues guitar. Oshawny pounds the piano keyboard in an attempt to keep up with Bell’s intensity. When the focus shifts to Moss, he steadily unleashes a solo that matches Bell’s fine work. Eddie Boyd’s “Five Long Years” serves a launching pad for more guitar pyrotechnics, as both guitarists get plenty of space to dazzle the audience, who erupt in appreciation at the end. After solid version of “I’m Ready”, the disc closes with a rockin’ Moss original, “I Wanna Know”. Nick gets into a call-&-response with the band before he and Bell trade another set of exquisite of guitar solos.

Here’s hoping that there will be an opportunity in the months ahead to catch Lurrie Bell with Nick & the Flip Tops. Based on the evidence on this recording, it is an explosive pairing that should wow festival audiences all summer long. But the first half of the disc offers more proof that Moss has one of the tightest and most versatile bands around. The collective talent of the band members allows them to approach the music in a number of creative ways, which keeps things interesting for everybody. This one is a must-hear for guitar lovers – and for anybody who wants to hear a truly exceptional example of the magic of a live blues performance. Highly recommended !!!

Split Decision reviewed by Steve Jones

Split Decision
Roy Rogers
Blind Pig Records
12 tracks

Roy Rogers latest effort showcases this slide master’s guitar in a variety of styles across the CD’s dozen cuts. His reunion with label Blind Pig also happens to be his first studio recording with his band, The Delta Rhythm Kings. He experiments in style with the songs he has penned for this new album and I have to say he succeeded quite well in his efforts.

Rogers aptly described his effort CD in the accompanying promotional material. He noted: "My influences are from all over the map. I love combining different elements on a recording, but ultimately it is about 'the feel' of a total record. I hope that shines through in a positive way for people." That is certainly evident and he slides his way from jazz to a grungy sounding combination of blues and rock and to country, with several stops in between. Several of the tracks stay true to a bluesy rock/rockabilly style that Rogers is quite adept at, but it really gets interesting when he branches out into the other worlds.

The opening track “The Calm Before the Storm” is a song about a cheating woman who is living through the calm before a confrontational storm, but this tune is anything but calm. Rogers blasts his way into this CD with a grunged-out driving beat and fuzzed out and distorted guitar work. When I first heard it I knew that this CD would be a little different.

He then shuffles into the next track, a catchy little honky-tonk track called “Patron Saint of Pain”. Here he sings of a woman walking into a disastrous relationship with a guy he calls the Patron Saint of Pain. Some barrelhouse piano riffs by Phillip Aaberg and Roy’s electric slide convinced me this was going to be a fun ride.

“Rite of Passage” is a great instrumental jazz track with George Brooks’ tenor sax featured. In the middle of it all the song swings over to a greasy slide guitar solo from Roy. A stark contrast to most of the songs on the album, it may be my favorite cut. The other instrumental is a short and almost Spanish acoustic guitar-styled number with Roger’s soloing and sliding his way through. Very interesting and quite good!

If you are a Roy Rogers fan, you’ll love his newest set of songs. It gives one a great sense for the talents of this experienced musician. His slide guitar work is so much more than solid and his vocals are more than up to the task. This CD is fresh and full of great music in a variety of sounds, styles and tempos. The Rhythm Kings (Steve Ehrmann on bass and Billy Lewis on drums) and the other accompanying guest musicians blend together well. Roy Rogers and Blind Pig have put together a great effort here!

Witness to the Blues reviewed by Steve Jones

Witness to the Blues
Joe Louis Walker
Stony Plain Records
11 tracks

Joe Louis Walker is a powerful and moving bluesman. His guitar work is impeccable and his vocals, for the most part, are also quite good. This CD is his first for Stony Plain and it is strongly recommended for Walker’s fans and anyone who likes to hear a variety of blues styles delivered by a great performer and some exceptional talent who back him up! Duke Robbilard produced the CD and appears on it as do piano great Bruce Katz, Shemekia Copeland, and a host of others.

Variety is the spice of life and Walker gives us a variety of blues formats, from full blown Chicago blues to more traditional electric blues, to R&B and then to barrelhouse blues. A big, driving cover of “It’s a Shame” starts it off, and the horns and rhythm section are up to the task as is Walker. He then shows us the style of his former mentor John Lee Hooker with an original tune called “Midnight Train” before moving into the R&B world doing a spicy duet with Shemekia Copeland on “Lover’s Holiday”. “Hustlin” follows, an original tune with Walker greasing the strings up while Katz provides ample support on the piano. Walker’s voice here is good but it seems to start fading a bit. On the fifth track he completely loses it vocally, scratching out an original tune entitled “Witness”. He strains and almost painfully struggles vocally in this slower R&B number, the only real low point on an otherwise superb disc.

In “Rollin’ and Tumblin’” and the closing track “Sugar Mama” he gives us a fresh and really bluesy look at two old favorites. The squeaky high pitched harmonica licks on the latter are also quite striking and his vocals here are faultless; this was my favorite track. Except for the vocals on one track, this is super disc. Joe Louis Walker probably does not get the props that many other blues guitarists get, which is a shame. This is a remarkable CD that is quite tight and well put together. I highly recommend it!

More Like Me reviewed by Steve Jones

More Like Me
Webb Wilder
Blind Pig Records
11 tracks

Webb Wilder came to Blind Pig Records
And released his first CD with them early last year (reviewed in our May-June 2008 Newsletter). It was a solid album, and while not truly a “blues” album, it hearkens to the roots of rock and roll music.

The same is true for this effort. The artwork on the album cover sets the tone, mixing the serious with the tongue and cheek.. This album is Wilder’s joyride through the blues via rockabilly, surf music, country, a little punkiness and other musical styles. To say Webb Wilder is witty and irreverent would be like saying that a big, juicy hamburger is a comfort food. It’s obviously true, and yet he is also able to perform seriously with equal skill.

This studio CD opens to the driving beat of “Ju Ju Man”, with some wicked guitar licks. Wilder’s guitar is pretty hot throughout this effort. He intersperses his hot licks with a more restrained approach in the slower tunes where his guitar work is equally sharp. Old standards like “She Said Yeah” get a great treatment; I don’t think I’ve seen this covered with as much applomb since the Stones sang the “Dum deedle dee dum dum” in the mid 60’s. And in “Don’t Slander Me” we get Webb doing outer space based surf guitar. His guitar stings here as it does in “Honk Tonkin’ (In Mississippi). This CD is another great showcase for how this man can handle his Gibson.

Wilder may never take himself seriously yet this guy appears to be a serious artist. Billboard describes Webb and his band as “part Georgia Satellites, part Dave Edmunds, part Elvis Costello and altogether wonderful.” I can’t argue with that assessment. He’s a solid guitar player and vocalist, and has a strong band backing him including three other guitar players. The sound is big and complex.

The slower stuff bears some mention, too. In the original cut called “Too Cool for Love”, we have a song about a chick who acts too cool to let her guard down. It is one of several new songs by Wilder that feature some interesting lyrics. “You’re a piece of work,
I’m sorry if that is too judgmental.
I don’t wanna be a jerk,
Even if it’s experimental.” These are not humorous thoughts, but some serious stuff. Wilder’s a pretty good songwriter who can play it simple and fun or really express himself.

A solid effort from a guy who has been making music since the mid seventies. Don’t expect traditional blues when you hit the play but, but do expect to be entertained by a guy who understand the roots of rock and roll.

Brand New Blues reviewed by Steve Jones

Brand New Blues
Cyril Neville
MC Records
10 tracks

This is the first new solo album in over eight years from Cyril Neville, the youngest of the famous siblings and probably the most socially conscious of the Neville Brothers. He wrote or co-wrote half the songs on this CD and it really sounds fresh and new. Even the covers of songs like Jimmy Reeds “I Found Joy” and “Blue, Blue Water” and Brooks Benton’s “I’ll Take Care of You” get a very fresh sounding coat of paint in this nice little CD.

The style is certainly blues delivered pretty much straight up, with Cyril backed up by the likes of brothers Art and Ivan on B3 organ, Brian J and fellow Wetlander Tab Benoit on guitar, and Johnny Sansone on harp. This is not a funked or tricked up New Orleans album, it is raw blues served up hot and steaming. No clinkers here, just some great blues.

The tile track features Cyril describing all the types of blues he’s lived through, but when his new woman walked into his life he experienced some “Brand New Blues.” He gets a little funky and quite bluesy in this new track. “Shake Your Gumbo” is as funky as it gets here, with the heavy percussion grinding out a beat on this track.

We are way beyond the concept of double entendres with the tracks “Cream Them Beans”, another new song. Suffice it to say that Cyril and co-author Brian J give us a song that the band can get down and dirty with.

The album closes with “Slave Driver,” featuring a stinging solo blues guitar by Brian J and some emotional vocals by Cyril on this Bob Marley song. A very bluesy rendition of a reggae song!

This is a strong effort by the youngest Neville Brother, if “young” is appropriate for a man born in 1948. It is a great set of tracks delivered with a variety of emotions from love and pleasure to anger and pain.

Neville Brothers fan will love this album as will blues fans. It is a solid, well produced and musically superb set of tracks. These post-Katrina inspired blues are hard hitting and show us the great stuff transpiring with the blues scene as it evolves down in the Big Easy. This CD is well worth adding to your blues music collection!

Blues Attack reviewed by Harmonica Joe

Blues Attack
Shirley Johnson
Delmark Records
14 tracks

Shirley Johnson's new disc, "Blues Attack", released by Delmark Records, is well worth the wait! Her last CD was Killer Diller, released in 2002, also was a great project. "Blues Attack is a great combination of 14 tunes with a good mix of blues, soul, funk and gospel. All but two of the tunes, "Unchain My Heart" and "634-5789", are originals for this project.

Shirley Johnson is a hard working awesome blues vocalist. Her voice is just a treat to listen to. She can be very powerful one moment and the very next she can be just soft and subtle. One never has to strain to hear the clarity of the lyrics as Shirley sings with every word with emotion and meaning. The lyrics are very important to her and she is sure to bring them out as intended.

On "Blues Attack", Shirley has surrounded herself with a fine band. If you are a piano/keyboard person, you are treated to the skillful playing of Roosevelt Purifoy.His presence is well placed thoughout the cd. This is good stuff! Luke Pytel is on lead guitar playing very tasteful riffs and doing awesome solos. The presence of a really good horn section is another plus for "Blues Attack". You can check out Lawrence Fields and Hank Ford on tenor sax, Willie Henderson on baritone sax and Kenny Anderson on trumpet. Bringing up the bass line is Lovely "JR" Fuller and Cordell Teague is on drums.

The title song, "Blues Attack", is a catchy, funky tune. The lyrics, "I've got the blues, ain't nothing wrong with that", is a great line. This tune in itself is a "Blues Attack". Luke Pytel does one awesome guitar solo during this track.

"You Shouldn't Have Been There", is one of my favorite tunes on the cd. This is a great blues tune with awesome lyrics. Shirley's interpretation and feeling for the story in the song really comes out on this one. The guitar work and subtle presence of the organ make this a standout to me.

"Blues Attack' has tunes for everyone's music likes. I was really impressed with "Selfish Kind Of Gal". This track has great lyrics, an awesome keyboard solo, and very nice guitar licks. "Let It Rain" is also a standout tune for me. One can really get that blues feeling with this one. Shirley Johnson controls this song with her great vocals and feelings for the lyrics.

Shirley Johnson's "Blues Attack" CD from Delmark Records is just one really good project. There is something in it for all blues lovers and also not a bad tune in it

Upside Down reviewed by David Stine

Upside Down
Aynsley Lister
Ruf Records
12 tracks

Somewhere on the way to his fourth CD, Aynsley Lister was misdiagnosed as a bluesman. Although the promo sheet that came with the CD mentions Aynsley’s cutting his teeth at 8 on his dad’s Freddie King and Eric Clapton records, I have to believe that he found his dad’s AC/DC, Black Sabbath, and Deep Purple records as well. Several listens to this CD revealed NO blues, no blues structure, no blues references and no bluesy playing. What I did hear were some near-country singing and some very heavy in-your-face guitars. The CD kicks off with the fast rocker “Find My Way Home.” Sure doesn’t sound like Clapton or Freddie King. “Getaway” slows things down ad bit with a guitar only intro, then it becomes a song that could have easily come out of modern-day Nashville. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy some of modern-day Nashville’s artists, but what’s with all the genre jumping? Are the pop/rock and country field’s so overloaded that “Blues” is the last refuge of a young artist looking for a label? Anyway back to the CD: song three begins as a pleasant break from the barrage--a nearly acoustic ballad entitled “Always Tomorrow.” As the song builds, here comes the big guitar sound to add emotion and push it to the end. I should mention here that Lister’s songsmith is fine, and his playing is great, AND he has a pleasant enough voice, but blues fans will be disappointed in the lack of blues. Even more country leaning (to my ears) is song four, “Ice I’m Upon.” (Expect to see Lister wearing one of those folded up cowboy hats on his next CD, NOT a blues chapeau.) Aha! It’s the slight whine in Lister’s voice that I hear. Song five, “beautiful” IS an all acoustic ballad delivered without the country mannerisms, and it is my favorite of the disc. So much of the rest sounds like stuff I’ve heard too many times before. Song six is a standard fare arena rocker (see previous statement). At song seven, “With Me Tonight,” we hear a bit of the shuffle intro worked to death by SRV, and I guess, if I were a blues radio DJ, this is the tune I would pick to play, because it‘s soooooooooo Bonamassa-esque!. “Rain” is a quiet acoustic outing that begins with some fancy Jimmy Page-type open-tuned picking. This is another nice, listenable song. Lister begins “In The Morning” with some metal-bodied finger work that jumps, you guessed it, into a fast rocker. Sounds The title track “Upsidedown” is, hmmmmmmmmmmm, a Hip Shake-meets-metal riff on steroids sung (partially) through a harmonic mic (or control room mic) that rockers will love. Oops, here’s that SRV shuffle groove again for “Disorderly Me.” Still, I refuse to call this a blues CD. (I don’t consider Joe Bonamassa blues either, BTW.) Ted Nugent would love the final cut “Falling Down” because it’s a fast “Stranglehold” meets Fleetwood Mac’s “Fighting For Madge.”

Fans of big guitar sounding blues-like-country-like music might want to check out Upsidedown. Aynsley Lister does have talent and fire. If you like bands who have taken 70s British blues rock to the next level and some of the heavier Nashville acts, then this CD is probably for you. Old school guys like me, well. . . Who’s Next?