Sunday, June 28, 2009

Done With the Devil reviewed by Mark Thompson

Done With the Devil
Jason Ricci & New Blood
Eclecto Groove Records
12 tracks/61:03

Through their many appearances over the years at Big Cities Lounge, Jason Ricci and New Blood have developed quite a local following. It is always fun to count the number of harmonica players in the audience at one of their shows. But Jason is not the whole show, a point he firmly emphasizes in the liner notes on the band’s latest release. Last year Shawn Starski was named one of “The Top Ten Hottest New Guitar Players” by Guitar Player magazine. Todd “Buck Weed” Edmunds is a monster bass player, equally at home playing James Brown funk or big band jazz. Drummer Ed Michaels is the most recent addition to New Blood. His skill as the timekeeper provides a solid foundation for the band’s improvisational forays.

Ricci has always been an eclectic musician. He has solid credentials as a bluesman, having played with the likes of Big Bad Smitty and R.L. Burnside in juke joints throughout the Mississippi delta. But his musical tastes go way beyond the simple 12-bar blues format. Check out the supercharged cover of The Misfits punk classic “I Turned Into a Martian”. Ricci shouts and howls through the lyrics as Starski fires off a taut guitar solo over Michaels powerful rhythm. Then Ricci unleashes one of his dazzling harmonica runs, playing complex lines at a pace faster than the mind can comprehend. The band tackles the jazz classic “Afro Blue”, with Ricci taking the opening solo at a breakneck pace, using a simple diatonic harmonica to create an intricate solo full of technical brilliance. After Starski and Edmunds turn in solid solos, Ricci finishes the track with more outstanding blowing, including a quote from “My Favorite Things”. Producer Phillip Wolfe fills in the arrangement on Hammond organ. The band also stretches out on the Edmunds instrumental, “Ptryptophan Pterodactyl”, with Wolfe on the Fender Rhodes keyboard.

The disc also features plenty of blues material. Willie Dixon’s “As Long As I Have You” is propelled by Michaels big beat . Ricci hoarse vocal contrasts with the clean guitar lines Starski contributes. Michaels handles the vocal on his original , “Keep the Wolf From My Door”. The track’s menacing tone comes from Starski’s outstanding guitar work and a booming bass line from Edmunds on the sousaphone. The band goes acoustic on “How It Came to Be”, with Starski singing his composition and playing the dobro. The title track is a high-energy rockin’ blues piece with more stellar harp playing from Jason. The band plays tribute to a friend lost to cancer on “Holler For Craig Lawler”.

The soulful “Sweet Loving” has a strong vocal performance from Ricci and some sparkling melodic guitar playing from Starski with another solid contribution from Wolfe on organ. Jason is even better on the autobiographical “Broken Toy”, his impassioned vocal and harp playing effectively conveying the dark emotional content of the track

After playing hundreds of gigs for each of the last few years, Ricci and his band mates have developed into a musical powerhouse. They have the talent and skills to head in any direction that their musical muse takes them. Producer Wolfe has done his job, keeping the band focused and reining in some of the excess of prior projects. The end result is the strongest release yet for Jason and New Blood. This one should please their many fans and garner them some attention from discerning listeners around the world.

My Walking Stick reviewed by Mark Thompson

My Walking Stick
Jim Byrnes
Black hen Music
13 tracks/54:36

Jim Byrnes may not be a familiar name to most people but fans of the old television shows Wiseguy and The Highlander will certainly recognize this actor who also has had a lengthy recording career. Originally from St. Louis, Byrnes has been living in Toronto for decades and has been won numerous Canadian blues music awards. His new release features a variety of styles of music that explore the roots of American music.

Byrnes handles all of the lead vocals and adds guitar to several tracks. He receives excellent support from Steve Dawson on a variety of string instruments, Keith Love on double bass, Stephen Hodges on drums and Chris Gestrin on organ. Vocal support comes from the gospel trio, The Sojourners (Marcus Mosely, Will Sanders, Ron Small), on nine cuts.

The eclectic program includes the title track, an Irving Berlin composition with a swing jazz feel accented by the violin work of Jesse Zubot, and a joyful remake of “Lookin’ for a Love” with Byrnes on guitar. He tackles a modern-day classic, “Ophelia”, from the pen of Robbie Robertson. This song has appeared on the playlist for numerous bands lately. Byrne’s voice is tender one moment, then adopts a gritty tone when the tempo picks up speed. It’s generally not a good idea to recreate a classic performance of a tune, but Byrnes is up to the task on “I’ll Drown in my Own Tears”. The arrangement sticks close to Ray Charles’ original take but Byrnes interpretation showcases his impressive vocal skills.

“Three Shots” tells the story of a card game gone bad, a brooding tale of cheating and death. Byrnes lays down some tough slide guitar licks on his original song “Ol’ Rattler”, with Gestrin’s organ driving the arrangement. Another standard, “Walk on Boy”, sports the sound of a hammer driving steel while Dawson contributes an impressive slide guitar work. Two gospel tracks, “What Are They Doing in Heaven Today” and “I Want My Crown”, give the Sojourners the chance to shine in support of Byrnes, who impresses again with range and versatility of his vocals.

Dawson handled the role of producer for this release. His arrangements create a rich musical landscape for the vocal parts. The intricate mixture has instruments moving to the forefront, making a statement and then drawing back to be replaced different instrument. Byrnes ties it all together with his compelling vocal performances. The disc has a slower pace and refrains from lengthy solos. It is a recording that should garner Jim Byrnes some well-deserved recognition for his musical talents.

Leap of Faith reviewed by Mark Thompson

Leap of Faith
Seth Walker
Hyena Records
12 tracks/44:25

While his name might not be familiar to most of you, the latest from Seth Walker is his fourth release in the last twelve years. Walker spent the last decade honing his craft in the vast musical community of Austin, Texas. He possesses a smooth-as-silk voice with good range and also plays guitar. He is backed by a solid group that includes award-winning Canadian guitarist Colin Linden and Kevin McKendree on keyboards. Several tracks feature a string section with all the parts played and arranged by Chris Carmichael. Walker and Nicholson co-wrote eight of the tracks and Walker penned “Lay Down (River of Faith)”.

The opening track, “Can’t Come With You,” has a jaunty rhythm and a soulful vocal from Walker. Linden’s slide guitar sparks the arrangement. “Rewind” sounds like a lost James Hunter track. Walker can’t quite match the supple nature of Hunter’s voice but the cut is still a gorgeous ballad with string accompaniment.

The title track was on a release by Delbert McClinton back in 1997. Walker handles the up-tempo groove with ease but his voice lacks the gritty edge that McClinton used effectively on his version. Linden contributes another engaging guitar solo. The pace slows down on “I Got a Song”, giving Walker the chance to be a crooner ala Sinatra. Nicholson’s lush arrangement never overwhelms Walker’s voice while establishing the late-night feel that is the essence of the track. Percy Mayfield’s “Memory Pain” is a short piece pushed by a horn section and McKendree’s piano.

“Dig a Little Deeper” sports another soulful vocal from Walker over McKendree’s swirling chords from the Hammond B-3 organ. The pace slows down on “Lay Down (River of Faith)” and the band switches to acoustic instruments but Walkers passionate singing makes this piece one of the disc’s highlights. Nick Lowe’s “Lately I’ve Let Things Slide” gets transformed into a country ballad .

Walker breaks out the boogie beat on “I Don’t Dance”, which should become a theme song for men all over the world ! Seth proves that he has the vocal chops to handle the deeper blues material. And when the band cuts loose on the rocking “Something Fast,” Walker’s vocal rides the beat but avoids the temptation to push too hard in response to the band’s relentless pace. “In the Dark” sports a Bo Diddley beat and some wicked guitar licks from Linden. The disc ends with another ballad, “Falling Out of Love”. Walker’s phrasing expertly captures the inherent longing in the lyrics.

Walker is mining the same musical territory as other singers like J.J. Grey and Eric Lindell - the place where blues, soul, rock and country get so entwined that the resulting mix can’t be classified but it sure sounds cool. His voice may not be as distinctive as those two but this release provides plenty of proof that Walker may be the best singer of the bunch. Nicholson’s production keeps the instrumental solos to a minimum, placing the focus squarely on Walker, whose easy-going vocal style makes every track a delight.

Troubled Child reviewed by Mark Thompson

Troubled Child
Charles Wilson
Severn Records
10 tracks/41:29

Charles Wilson career started in Chicago at the age of seven. Encouraged by his uncle, Little Milton Campbell, Wilson cut his first record in 1964 and he remains a star on the southern soul circuit. To date his strongest release was If Heartaches Were Nickels on Delmark Records, which led people to peg him as blues singer. While Wilson has cut some strong blues records, he has always been a talented soul singer in search of the right opportunity to display his abilities.

Enter Severn Records, who enlisted David Earl and bassist Steve Gomes to spearhead this project. They selected a stellar collection of tunes from some of the best songwriters in the soul genre - Don Robey, Denise LaSalle, Sam Dees, George Jackson and Clay Hammond. Gomes contributed two gems and co-wrote a third cut with Ronnie Earl Horvath. Next Earl & Gomes surrounded Wilson with a full band, complete with horns, a string section and backing vocals. The horn and string arrangements were entrusted to the veteran Willie Henderson Jr., who arranged and produced hits like Tyrone Davis’ “Turn Back the Hands of Time”. The band includes Mike Welch on guitar, Benjie Porecki on organ and electric piano plus Robb Stupka on drums.

Full-blown productions can often bury a singer under the weight of so many instruments and voices. In this case, all the parts fit together to create the perfect vehicle to showcase Wilson ‘s marvelous voice. Listen to his gentle touch on the opening lines to “The Good Side of My Girl”. By the end of the track, his voice soars over Porecki’s organ swirls as Charles testifies about the love of his life. The ballad “Someone Must of Taught You” finds Wilson pleading for trust from a lover who has been burned before. Wilson’s performance on “Somebody’s Tears” evokes the memory of legendary soul singer, O.V. Wright. The title track is a pointed social commentary on life in the inner city. Wilson expertly captures the despair and pain expressed in the lyrics.
Another highlight is the cover of Bob Marley’s “Is This Love”. All hints of reggae are gone, replaced by a percolating rhythm track that is once again driven by Porecki on organ. The instrumental backing on this track harkens back to the glory days of the Hi Rhythm section. Wilson’s passionate vocal commands your attention in the midst of the horns and backing singers. On the opening track, “Where My Baby Went”, Wilson makes you feel the pain of a good man done wrong by a Cadillac-chasing woman. The hard-hitting groove of “Put Something Into It” serves as a reminder that Wilson is more than just a sweet soul man.

Given the full support of Severn Records, Charles Wilson finally delivers the thoroughly outstanding performance that many have predicted for him, given the opportunity. This is deep soul , presented with class, sophistication and expert musicianship. Wilson disdains attention-grabbing vocal tricks and concentrates on singing from his heart and soul. This recording is a marvelous achievement that may prove to be the crown jewel in Wilson’s career.

From the Root reviewed by Steve Jones

From the Root
Zac Harmon
Northern Blues Music, Inc.
14 tracks/

Zac Harmon’s discography is quite impressive. As an LA studio musician for many years, he recorded with many fine bands and musicians. He was finally “discovered” in 2004 when he was sponsored by the Southern California Blues Society and won the International Blues Challenge as “Best Unsigned Band.” Two years later he won the Blues Music Award for “Best New Artist.” He originally hails from Jackson, Mississippi, and his bop claims he is disciple of Jackson’s Farish Street blues sound. His musical roots are strong and his talent is exceptional!
“From the Root” is his fourth CD (his first with Northern Blues after a French release and two others available on CD Baby) and showcases Harmon’s songwriting and performing abilities. It is a beautiful blend of blues, soul, and a little reggae. It captured my interest immediately; I was tapping my foot and groovin’ to the beat on the CD’s first track.

About half of the songs are straight up blues. “Hattie Mae,” “Keep the Blues Alive” and “Scratch” are great examples of how this artist excels in the Delta tradition. His blues are awesome and the backing sounds from the other band members are equally good. Jimmy Z’s harp work is exceptional throughout.
The other half of the album focused predominantly on Zac’s funky and soulful side. The opening track “Don’t Give Me Another Reason” smartly mixes soul with some blues. Sueann Carwell’s vocals with Harmon on “The Price of Lovin’ You” are sultry and seductive. “Back Bitin’ Back Stabbers” and then Smile on Your Face” and “Want Ads” are at ends of the soul spectrum, from a funked up dance tune to two that are in the style of older Al Green stuff.

It’s a great CD and Harmon shows his talents and versatility. To note, Zac will be performing locally at the Paramount Blues Festival in Grafton, WI, on Saturday, August 22nd, 2009 and I look forward to the show! He’s a great musician and performer, and his new CD is worth checking out!

Slide to Freedom 2: Make a Better World reviewed by Steve Jones

Slide to Freedom 2: Make a Better World
Doug Cox & Salil Bhatt
Northern Blues Music, Inc.
8 tracks/50 minutes

This is quite the striking album. Doug Cox plays Resophonic Lap-styled slide guitar while Salil Bhatt plays slide on his lap with the Satvik Veena. A sequel to their2007 endeavor, Slide to Freedom 2 continues the marriage of the blues with traditional classical Indian music and takes it even one step further. New Orleans vocalist John Boutte adds his soulful warmth and charm with vibrant vocals to contrast the unique sliding sounds of lap played stringed instruments.

Before I get into the music, I feel compelled to talk about the Indian “guitar.” Called a ‘Veena’, it is a traditional Indian stringed instrument which originated back in the 1600’s. A resonator chamber (carved out of some sort of hardwood) attached to a long neck with many strings that play both melody and resonant harmonies give it a familiar sound. Vishwa Mohan Bhatt, Salil’s father, developed the Mohan Veena, a hybrid slide guitar, about 30 years ago. It has 19 strings under very high tension and is played lap-style. It has a carved spruced top, mahogany back and sides, a mahogany neck, and a flat, fretless, rosewood fingerboard complete the construction. His son Salil has created a new variant on the Veena and has named it the Satvik Veena. This is made of a 100-year-old oak wood block; its top made of pinewood to let the sound filter and resonate and it has two f - shaped sound holes to provide the easy emergence of sound. It looks sort of like a confused hollow bodied guitar on some big time steroids.

When I first put the CD in and went through it I said, “Wow!” I had not heard the original CD, so I guess I was not prepared. The sound is lilting and mysterious, yet somewhat familiar. Cox and Bhatt take their guitars seriously and make some beautiful sounds blend into a web of lap slide perfection. I try to stay away from blow by blow reviews, but in this case I make an exception and cover the CD from stem to stern.

The opener, “Make a Better World,” is a song about tolerance and living together. The blend of American and Indian instruments brings home the ideas spoken to in the lyrics and vocals. It is a beautiful song. “A Letter Home” follows, an interesting instrumental piece that winds and slides through hills and valleys for nearly 10 minutes yet it does not drag. Two songs later the guitar players go off on another long instrumental venture called “Blessings,” another compelling blend of American and Indian music with a bit more tempo. Sandwiched between them is “I Scare Myself,” a hauntingly beautiful love song.

Boutte impresses with his vocals; his efforts along with the two slide-men make even the traditional hymn “Amazing Grace” sound fresh and new. Another longer instrumental follows this, “The Moods of Madhuvanti,” and it is classical Indian music done with a Resophonic harmony. They also cover the Beatles’ “For You Blue;” it is interesting to contrast Lennon’s fuzzy lap slide work in the original song with Cox and Bhatt’s slides and Harrison’s vocals with Boutte’s. The Indian guitar sounds in this song feel natural; it is as if the Beatles’ intended this song to be in their post-Maharishi visit music style.

“Freedom Raga” closes the set. A ‘raga’ is a traditional Hindu music style where the tune uses a base note with five or more notes form the basic melody. Boutte’s vocals “I got freedom” and “walk with me” rhythmically repeated and the guitar work make this another compelling tune.

I really enjoyed this album. The more I played it the more the nuances of harmony and tone came out and made the further listening even more fun. The backing sound of Dinah D on bass and Ramkumar Mishra on tabla and percussion make it all the more inviting and driving. And Salil’s dad makes a guest appearance on the Beatles’ cover on his Mohan Veena, making the guitar harmonies even more divergent and special. It is a great album. As a blues fan, if you have even the faintest spark of interest in Indian music, this album is a must to buy!

Living in the Light reviewed by Steve Jones

Living in the Light
Ronnie Earl and the Broadcasters
Stony Plain Recording Company
12 tracks/78:13

Ronnie Earl’s approach to both his life and music are thoughtful and reflective. The original tunes and the choices for covers allow you to feel the compassion of this man in his work. A great set of musicians joined him for this album and he gets them to perform in the same manner; they really deliver the goods. This is an exceptional CD with a dozen solid and soulful tracks.

Kim Wilson provides vocals and harmonica on three cuts. Robert Jr Lockwood’s “Take A Little Walk With Me” is downright full of the blues. In “Child of the Survivor” Earl’s lyrics allow Wilson to delve respectfully into the Holocaust. Earl (the child of two survivor parents) asks in his song, “Have you heard the blues, do you know the blues, do you know what it’s like to hear the cry of the Jews?”, and Wilson’s demonstrative vocals impress while his harp punctuates this touching track. “Donna Lee” is another original song in the traditional Delta blues style with Earl’s masterfully picking at his guitar and Wilson showing great restraint on both the lyrics and harp in this slow and seductive blues.

Bob Dylan’s “What Can I Do For You” features Dave Keller backed by the 10-person choir from Earl’s First Baptist Church of Littleton asking both vocally and with their music what they can do for the Lord. Keller’s great vocals are featured on another number, the powerful opening song penned by Earl “Love Love Love.”

“S.O.S.” and “Recovery Blues” are examples of Earl’s seductive charms. These two songs are slow but searing guitar instrumentals featuring Earl at his best with Dave Lumina’s Hammond B3 organ harmonizing and testifying nicely along with the guitar. The CD is full of thoughtfulness and restraint, showing the human is greater than the instrument and that music does not have to be excessive to be impressive. Earl’s guitar and the supporting work of Wilson, Keller, Lumina, Jim Mouradian on bass, Lorne Entress on drums, David Maxwell on piano for a couple of tracks, Rod Carey on bass for one cut and Jason James on second guitar on another give us a clean and beautiful set of songs to kickoff the summer with! If you love the blues delivered by musicians in touch with both their souls and their instruments, you cannot pass this one up!

White Sugar reviewed by Steve Jones

White Sugar
Joanne Shaw Taylor
Ruf Records
10 tracks/

The future of the blues is change and Ruf Records, along with other record companies, keep producing new artists giving us their version of the blues. Here we have a 23 year old British guitar player and vocalist who was weaned on Stevie Ray Vaughn and Albert Collins. Ms. Taylor is an apt student as she has picked up the rocking blues guitar style quite well.

While this is labeled as a “blues” album (the back cover has a stark note as part of it’s artwork to file this CD in the Blues Section of the record store), what we really have here is 80% rock and 20% blues. Two (ok, maybe three) of the ten tracks are blues rock while the others are stylistically very much rock built in the early 80’s mold. I don’t say that out of criticism of the quality of the artist’s guitar and vocals, because they are very, very good,; it is just that stylistically the songs are not really that new and fresh and are mostly are not blues.

That aside, Taylor’s approach to the fret board is clean and intense. Her style is to let us hear what she can do but not feel that she has to give us hundreds of notes per minute. She is focused and disciplined in her guitar work and I liked it a lot. Vocally she is also quite good, giving a breathy and folky-ness to her singing. At times she reminded me of Judy Collins, at least what she would sound like if she sang blues and Foreigner/Journey type rock songs. It’s sort of a twin Collins approach- Albert Collins’ styled guitar with rocking Judy Collins’ styled vocals!

The problem comes from the songs she has written. There is nothing really wrong with them, they just sound like songs I have heard before. The riffs are sometimes a little predictable even thought all ten songs were newly penned by Taylor. The song styles hearken to those of SRV, Jimmy Hendrix, Johnny and Edgar Winter, Styx and (as I noted) even Journey and Foreigner. In “Kiss the Ground Goodbye” she evokes the spirit of Hendrix. They are songs that show us how blues and then rock evolved in the 60’s and 70’s into this style of early 80’s rock. Her two truly blues songs are also lack freshness. Not bad, just not new.

The album does show us that this young woman can play the hell out of a guitar. I was greatly impressed by her work. She really can lay it out and play. The instrumental title track gives us a great rocking SRV approach to guitar and she can play it well. The last song of the album, a blues number entitled “Blackest Day,” starts out slow and builds. It seemed a little dark in tempo to close the CD that way, but it did build up in intensity nicely until the final fade. The fade made it sound like Joanne did not have a good way to finish the song. I was finally getting into it and was a little let down.

If you are a John Mayer or Jonny Lang fan then I am sure you will love this new CD from a talented young female guitar player. She delivers the blues in a rocking manner a la their style. I really would like to see her perform because there is both control and intensity built into her playing that I would love to see and hear live.

Right There Right Now reviewed by Steve Jones

Right There Right Now
Big James and the Playboys
Blind Pig Records
11 tracks/47 minutes

Big James Montgomery is a fiery and expressive bandleader who can wow a crowd with his vocals and trombone. When one thinks front man for a blues band guitar or perhaps harp jump out, yet James pulls off his leadership role superbly with the big horn. James has been schooled well, having played with the likes of Little Milton and Johnny Christian before touring extensively with Buddy Guy and joining the Chicago Playboys. Now as their leader, Big James has the band packing houses all over the place.

This is Montgomery ’s first album on a major label after a couple of well received self-produced CDs. Blind Pig Records has latched on to a great sound with Big James and the Playboys. They were born of Chicago Blues but play a mean funk and soul groove on top of their blues sound. There is some hot horn playing on this CD along with Big James; Charlie Kimble on sax and Kenny Anderson on trumpet give the songs a full and rich sound. Joe Blocker’s keyboards are also a joy to listen to, whether he is just filling in or playing some stratospheric synthesizer. Mike Wheeler on guitar is no slouch either and when he gets to solo one can appreciate how solid he really is. The backbone of the band is provided by Larry William’s bass and Cleo Cole on the skins. Theresa Davis and Wheeler back up James on vocals, and Derrick “D-Mose” Moseberry adds a funky rap to “On the Grind.”

Musically we have a strong set of musicians turning in some great performances. The highlight of the CD for me was the Robert Dukes slow track “Help (Somebody Please)”. It opens with some expressive guitar by Wheeler and Big James signifying, and then it gets into a soulful funked-up blues where Montgomery really delivers the goods. In “Right Here Right Now” James displays a restrained angriness over the social situation today; he really express his feelings in a strong, musical way. “Without You in My Life”, “The Goose” and “Love to See You Smile” are a three more great funk/R&B covers that the Playboys put a nice spin on. Where the CD lacks a little bit is in the lyrics on some of Montgomery ’s new songs. Some of the rhyming and structure of the lyrics seem to be a bit forced, but the sound they deliver on these tracks makes up for these flaws. If you like your blues funky, then the Playboys and their big man Big James will satisfy your soul!

Duke Robillard’s Jumpin’ Blues Revue - Stomp! The Blues Tonight reviewed by David Stine

Duke Robillard’s Jumpin’ Blues Revue - Stomp! The Blues Tonight
Duke Robillard
Stony Plain Records
16 tracks

Hot on the heels of Sunny and Her Joy Boys (which IS a Duke album), comes “Stomp! The Blues Tonight”. Nobody can make an old song sound old like Duke Robillard. Yet, you’ve got to admire his unwavering devotion to all things T-bone Walker. Some folks might be a bit weary of the whole West coast jumpin’ blues phenomenon. I am. However, if you loved the first Roomful of Blues CD, and haven’t gotten enough of a jumping guitar and horn-driven band, then maybe this CD IS for you. Don’t get me wrong, I am a Duke fan, not militantly so like my East coast buddies, but I appreciate his tone and impeccable guitar phrasing. I am not, however, a fan of his stark, bitten off vocals. The addition of Sunny Crownover here (6 cuts) only adds more for me to complain about. Two so so vocalists can’t make one good one. On the duet “I Wanna Hug You, Kiss You, Squeeze You,” I cringed. Before I get shot, let me state that this is a crack band, instrumentally. Back to help are stalwarts Marty Ballou, Doug James, Al Basile along with Bruce Bears, Carl Querfurth, Jon Ross, Rich Lataile, and Mark Teixeira. They sound every bit as good as Roomful and have a mighty feel for the jump blues of the 40s. The album is also nice and lengthy (Duke is never chintzy in that regard)--66 min. and 16 cuts. Besides the Duke-penned title cut, “Look But Don’t Touch” (sung by Sunny), and “Jumpin The Bone” (Duke and Doug James) are classic by Roy Milton, Helen Humes, Lowell Fulson, Ike Turner, and Wynonie Harris. There is no questioning Duke’s love of this era of music. But do we need yet another cover of “Ain’t Nobody’s Business,“ “Frankie and Johnny (done as a great instrumental, by the way), or “Tore Up”? While staying true to the feel and sound of the 40s is admirable, I question the need for other than die-hard Duke fans. The whole CD had my toe tappin’, but the only rendering that jumped out at me was Jay McShann‘s “Hands Off!” “Jump The Bone” comes in at a close second. Maybe Duke needs to trust Duke more and realize that many of the great songs and songwriters he admires were pretty good and smooth vocalists as well. If he is not going to hire a singer that can do these songs justice, vocally, the he need to write more of his own songs to take their place. Again, Duke fans will welcome his return to his jump blues roots (see review of Sunny and Her Joy Boys), but if you are new to Duke or this genre’ there are MANY other CDs you may want to explore first. Duke has great instincts: T-Bone, Roy Milton, Lowell Fulson, and Ike Turner did some great stuff. They also had great bands, as does Duke, but they also had a sort of ragged authority that I find lacking in this CD. Duke is starting to look more and more like a high school math teacher. I hope CDs like this are not just an intellectual exercise.

Lay Your Burden Down reviewed by David Stine

Lay Your Burden Down
Buckwheat Zydeco
Alligator Records
11 tracks

If you pick up “Lay Your Burden Down” to throw on during a backyard party to get things going, you may want to sample the CD first. There are indeed rockin’ zydeco songs here, but they are interspersed with pseudo reggae and slower and more introspective tunes, such as the title cut. “Lay Your Burdon Down” displays Buckwheat’s versatility, but it may not keep you dancing. Cut one is a cover of “When The Levee Breaks” that owes more to Led Zepplin than Memphis Minnie. Sonny Landreth adds some nice slide work behind Buckwheat’s B3, but as I said, the arrangement is too close to Zep’s to be terribly noteworthy. Landreth shows up again on song two, JJ Grey‘s “The Wrong Side.” Grey adds piano to this song about being from the wrong side of the track. Still no party. Things perk up a bit for Jimmy Cliff’s “Let Your Yeah Be Yeah” but slow back down for song four, “Don’t leave Me.” Here Trombone Shorty’s solo saves what might have been a throw-away song of the CD. Buckwheat and band give the reggae treatment to Springsteen’s “Back In Your Arms.” Five songs in and still no party. Aha! “Throw Me Something, Mister” FINALLY begins to get things cooking for that backyard party. It is pretty standard Buckwheat Zydeco fair but comes as a much needed break from the underlying themes of regret and loss that entwine the CD. Warren Haynes’ “Lay Your Burden Down” follows and is the bluesiest cut on the CD with Haynes’ slide work complimenting the tone and theme of the title cut. Steve Berlin adds a nice baritone sax solo to “Time Goes By” which follows. It may just be coincidence that song nine is titled “Ninth Place,” but lyrically and musically it comes close to filler. Song ten is a cover of Captain Beef heart’s “Too Much Time.” It may seem and odd choice at first, but it fits with the overall introspective side of the album. The CD ends with an instrumental entitled “Finding My Way Back Home.” The waltz-like rhythm forces us to look back on the whole CD, and even without the PARTY, it holds up well as whole album. Again, the constant themes here are regret, renewal, loss, and longing. All universal; all needed--especially by a Louisiana native. There is a certain overall sadness to “Lay Your Burden Down”. No, it’s not a party album, but it is a good album and one that should be heard.

Free Your Mind reviewed by Rick Davis

Free Your Mind
Too Slim and the Taildraggers
Underworld records
11 Tracks

Too Slim and the Taildraggers has developed an eclectic music style which has created a national and international fan appreciation for this blues-rock group. I can actually say that I'm a part of their fan base, following the band since one of their first cds Rock em' Dead in 1990.

Too Slim and the Taildraggers are concert headliners today playing in the western and mid-western part of the United States. They have shared the stage with blues, rock, and country legends like Bo Diddley, Brian Setzer, The Doobie Brothers, Lucinda Williams, The Little River Band, Johnny Lang, .38 Special, Robert Cray, Otis Rush, Jeff Healey, Ted Nugent, Los Lobos, Lonnie Mack, Blue Oyster Cult, Heart, Travis Tritt, Junior Brown, Gatemouth Brown, Neil McCoy, Delbert McClinton, Blues Traveler, Steppenwolf, Johnny and Edgar Winter, and Ronnie Milsap.

Their latest cd Free Your Mind is the 10th studio album by the group consisting of an 11 song cd, showcasing the song writing and award winning guitar of Tim "Too Slim" Langford. Their last cd The Fortune Teller reached #9 on the Billboard magazine Top Blues Album sales chart in 2007 and 2008. They have won numerous awards in Chicago and the western part of the United States. Langford, the band's leader has won awards like "Best Guitarist", "Best Slide Guitarist", and "Best Songwriter.

The newest cd Free Your Mind is collection of Americana, blues-rock, and country blues rock. Langford took time off from touring specifically for song writing and was very pleased with his efforts. The opening song "When You Love Somebody" really typifies the talent of this group. It is really one of those southern blues-rock songs that you can't stop playing. The background vocals of Lauren Evans and Paula and Pamela Mattioli make this one of those "perfect" songs that seems to stand out as one group's finest.
The group is backed in the studio by bassist Dave Nordstrom and drummer Rudy Simone. The follow up song "Last Train" is as powerful as the opening song and is a testament to Langford's exceptional guitar ability and terrific song writing, telling us he is riding on the "last train" headed on a collision course. "Devil In A Doublewide" sounds like a page right out of The Allman Brothers. The first three songs in my estimation are worth the price of the cd. Langford reminds us to keep things in perspective in his unique slide guitar extraordinaire number "Free Your Mind". "Testament" incorporates some of the best swamp blues guitar on the charts today. The band picks up the tempo with "Been Through Hell." Langford's slide guitar licks on this song will send a chill through your spine! He follows with an equally powerful song "Peace With The Maker." "Too Slim" again displays his unique slide blues style in the haunting song "Bottle It Up". In "Throw Me A Rope", the band reminds us of how life seems to deal us some tough situations and Langford cries out a plea to "throw me a line". "This Phone" tells his listeners of that lost love and how it creates the blues within us. "The Light" awakes the spiritual side in all of us with Lauren Evans on lead vocals performing in a powerful gospel voice that could wake the dead.

On Free Your Mind, Too Slim and The Taildraggers give the listeners a great variety of music with songs of "love, perseverance, faith, fiction, frustration, and the craziness of everyday life." This group has been one of my favorites for years.

From the Water reviewed by Rick Davis

From the Water
Colin Linden
True North Records
14 Tracks

Colin Linden is a new discovery for me but has done work for over 30 years it seems.
Artists such as The Band, Colin James, Keb Mo, Tab Benoit, The Blind Boys of Alabama, Whitney Johnson, and Michelle Wright have covered his material. He has produced 70 albums, has played on over 300 recordings, and has appeared in films, and has recorded music on the soundtracks O Brother Where Art Thou and Devine Secrets of The Ya Ya Sisterhood. He has been recently touring with Emmylou Harris and has performed as a part of the group Blackie & The Rodeo Kings. Colin tells the listening audience "I have been playing country blues, '20s style acoustic blues since I was a really a little kid." His blues influences include Howlin' Wolf, Charlie Patton, Son House, and Blind Blake.

From the Water was created by Linden and friends in wake of the passing of his close friend, keyboardist Richard Bell, once a part of Janis Joplin's Full Tilt Boogie Band. Musicians performing on the cd include Gary Craig (drums), Johnny Dymond (bass), Bryan Owings (drums), and John Whynot (keyboards). Additional guests include Paul Reddick (harmonica) and The Memphis Horns featuring Wayne Jackson.

According to Colin, "From The Water contains some of the grooviest, funkiest, and most soulful songs I could have written and recorded." It starts with the title track "From The Water" spotlighting some of Linden's exceptional slide guitar work and is one of the best tracks on the cd. "Mon Coeur Est Dans Tes Mains" is his first song written in French featuring a very lonely sounding slide guitar solo by Linden. "Built Right On The Ground" sounds like a deep roots blues tune right out of the movie O Brother Where Art Thou. "Smoke 'Em All" is an acoustic masterpiece written by Linden and his wife about Richard Bell. "Trouble Only Comes In 3's" co-written with Richard Bell, starts like a jump blues tune right off the album done by Jump In The Saddle, another great jump blues band.
"Between The Darkness and The Light Of Day" is a soulful number with The Memphis Horns in the background. Linden creates a spiritual sound in his acoustic number "I Have Seen A Miracle". An up tempo song " You Have The Devilment," features great harmonica and keyboard background, blending with Colin's guitar solos. He slows things down with "John Lennon In New Orleans" and "Later Than You Think". "The Price You Pay" remind us about the high cost of love. "Linden's country blues style is really present in "Sinking Down Slow." I think the song "The Heaven Me" shows how versatile Colin Linden can be on guitar. In this tune, he mentions his friend Richard Linden and concludes this great country blues collection with a spiritual number "God Will Always Remember Your Prayers."

I would like to quote a statement from the release information on From the Water. "There is something very special about Linden's way of writing and presenting songs- there is a perfection and passion in every note and lyric. His love and knowledge of music permeates in every song and it is never more evident than here in From the Water.

Blues Walkin' Like A Man- A Tribute To Son House reviewed by Harmonica Joe

Blues Walkin' Like A Man- A Tribute To Son House
Rory Block
Stony Plain Records
13 tracks

This is Rory Block's latest cd release on the Stony Plain Records label. This recording features 13 songs written by Eddie J. " Son" House Jr. We have all probably heard most of these tunes somewhere or by someone and enjoyed them in the past and Rory Block's new take on these songs is outstanding.

If you are not familar with Rory Block, you are in for a treat with this Tribute to Son House! Son House is what the blues are about. The tunes are about real life, hard times, and good times, too. Rory Block has captured the true essence of the blues with this project. Her slide guitar style and finger picking licks are really outstanding. On most tracks it sounds as if two or three guitars are playing. Rory also has the true blues vocalist quality needed to effectively sing the blues. Her voice and interpretation of the song makes one really listen to the lyrics of Son House.
While trying to be true to the songs of Son House, Rory has put her own style and feelings into each of them. She has changed the tempo on some and added her own style to the guitar licks This is what a true artist does. She has done a awesome job of this.
On "Downhearted Blues", Rory added John Sebastian on the harmonica. Anyone that is aware of John Sebastian knows that this is a welcomed addition. He adds some very tasteful harp playing to this great blues tune from Son House. If you are not an acoustic slide guitar fan, "Downhearted Blues" will make you into one. Rory does a swell job on this cut.
Son’s "Preachin' Blues" makes one appreciate Rory's fine intricate guitar playing, sultry raspy blues voice and the overall feeling of the blues. "Preachin' Blues" is a great tune to have included on this CD.

"Government Fleet Blues" is another of House’s tunes that Rory has chosen to do tribute
to. Again she has included John Sebastian on the harmonica. This is a seven minute track that showcases Rory's great vocal range, slide work, and great blues lyrics along with some fine harp playing by John. To me, "Government Fleet Blues" is the best song on the album. This tune is a musical conversation with the blues.

The entire recording of "Blues Walkin' Like A Man" A Tribute To Son House” is all about Rory Block's great slide guitar skill, her awesome blues vocals and her deep feelings for the truth in the blues of Son House. This whole CD is really a great tribute To Son House, done by a fine musician.

Back to the Black Bayou reviewed by Harmonica Joe

Back to the Black Bayou
Louisiana Red & Little Victor's Juke Joint
12 tracks

Louisiana Red, aka Iverson Minter, was born in Bessema Alabama in 1932. His main musical influences were Lightnin' Hopkins, Elmore James, Muddy Waters and Arthur Crudup. Over his 50 year career, Louisiana Red has played with almost all of the great blues players including B. B. King and Muddy Waters.

In 1983, Louisiana Red won the W. C. Handy award for best traditional blues artist. He has also released over two dozen other blues recordings since 1975. Ruf Records has just released the latest Louisiana Red CD, "Back to the Black Bayou". All of the 12 songs on the CD are written or arranged by Iverson Minton. Two of the tracks,"Ride On Red, Ride On" and "Too Poor To Die", were co-written with Henry Glover.

The musicians for this recording are Louisiana Red on vocals and guitar on all tracks (except for " I Come From Louisiana" where he only does vocals), Little Victor is on guitar and harmonica, Robert Alexander Petterson on drums and William "Bill" Troiani on upright bass. Louisiana Red chose to include harp players Kim Wilson, Bob Corritore and Jostein Forsberg as guest musicians on this recording. Dave Maxwell and Reider Larson also provide some fine piano playing; on both lead and rhythm guitar is The Hawk, and Peter Lundell is on percussions. This is really a great lineup of blues artists!

Having two guitar players on almost every song, we are treated to some fine interaction that is not done much nowadays on many blues recordings. Each guitar player is keying off the other one to make for a great sound. Louisiana Red, The Hawk and Little Victor really play together well!

"Crime In Motion" is a swell tune for the slide guitar lover. Louisiana Red shows off his Elmore James influence on this tune. Red's vocals on this are straight forward Elmore James style. Just kick back and take in the rich vocals, slide work and lyrics on this one.
"Ride On Red, Ride On" is a showcase of Red's vocals as Little Victor and The Hawk take on all of the guitar work. There is a lot of awesome guitar playing on this track.

"Sweet Leg Girl" featues Louisiana Red doing some real drag down blues. This is a great song for Red's fine slide guitar, his heart felt vocals and the great band on this project. Josein Forsberg's harp playing is awesome on this track This is blues harp as it should be.

I could go on and on about what I like about "Back to the Black Bayou", but space and time prevent that. I do not want to miss noting the fine harp players. Jostein Forsberg, Bob Corritore, Little Victor and Kim Wilson play an essential role in making this CD an outstanding blues recording!

The only way to appreciate Louisiana Red's "Back to the Black Bayou" is to take a listen to. You will not be disappointed.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

More Rare Gems reviewed by Harmonica Joe

More Rare Gems
Chicago Blues Harmonica Project
Severn Records
12 tracks

Well, I guess that I will do a CD review for the harmonica geeks out in the blues world. I do say this with the feelings of being one myself. My fellow blues society members remind me of this all the time. So what and here we go with it.

This release, from Severn Records, "More Rare Gems", is the second in the project to show that blues harmonica is still alive and well in Chicago. The Chicago Blues Harmonica Project, "Diamonds In The Rough", was released in 2005. Because of the success of this CD "More Rare Gems" has been produced.

The harmonica players featured on "More Rare Gems" are as follows, Little Aurther Duncan, Harmonica Hinds, Charlie Love, Russ Green, Reginald Cooper and Jeff Taylor. Each of them bring their own style of harp playing to the project. The band backing these harmonica players is the Chicago Bluesmasters. This is a very well rounded blues band. Twist Turner is the drummer, Mark (Max) Brunbach on piano, E.G. McDaniel on bass, with Rick Kreher and Illinois Slim doing the fine guitar work.. This group presents itself as a very fine blues band.

"Shade Tree Mechanic" done by Reginald Cooper on harp is a great blues tune with some tricky, suggestive lyrics. Reginald's harp line is straight forward Chicago blues. His other tune on the CD is "Give Me Back That Wig" , which he does a fine job on. His raspy blues vocals and direct blues harp playing make this tune, to me, one of the standout tracks on the CD.

Little Arthur Duncan contributed two great songs on this recording. "Can't Stand it No More" and "Gone To Main Street" display his influences of Little Walter and Muddy Waters. Little Arthur's bare bones blues harp playing combine with his signature vocals is outstanding on these two tracks. He will be missed by blues lovers everywhere.

Harmonica Hinds adds two of his original tunes to the album mix. "Kill That Mouse" adds a fun catchy vocal line that is accented by a really good harp solo on this up beat tune. “Sunday Morning Blues" adds a good blues shuffle for us to listen to.

Charlie Love gives us some Howlin" Wolf with his version of "Ooh Baby". Charlie's strong vocals and fine harmonica licks are featured on this tune. This is another powerful track on the CD. Charlie Love also adds "The 12 Year Old Boy" for us. Charlie has done a great version of the tune. His harmonica solo leaves you with the feeling that you need to hear more of it.

Big D is a young harp player on the Chicago blues scene. Although only being twenty years old, Big D has honed his harmonica skills with the likes of Billy Flynn and Rockin' Johnny to name a couple. This in itself says much for his ability as a harp player. The two tunes that he adds to the CD are "Well You Know" and "I've Got To Be With You Tonight". Slim Harpo would be proud of Big D's harp style. Big D also adds very strong vocal quality to these tunes.

"Gangster Of Love" is a great tune featuring Jeff Taylor on vocals and Russ Green on harp. Green's harmonica on this tune is awesome. We could have used another track with him on. Jeff Taylor's vocals also make this a stand out tune.
I do not want to short Jeff Taylor of my praise for his harp playing. His rendition of "Honest I Do" gives us a fine example of high end first position harp playing. Jimmy Reed would be proud. “Honest I Do" is a great tune with Jeff Taylor on harp and vocals.

The Chicago Blues Harmonica Project--"More Rare Gems", shows us that the Chicago style harp player is alive and well and contributing to the blues. They will be here for a long time to come also. All of you harmonica geeks out there should check out this CD. The rest of you blues fans will also enjoy every track on "More Rare Gems".

Pentatonic Wars and Love Songs reviewed by Rich Gordon

Pentatonic Wars and Love Songs
Otis Taylor
Telarc Records
13 tracks

I am an Otis Taylor fan. When I got this disc, I couldn’t wait to hear it. I put in my CD player in my vehicle, and off I went. Upon hearing the disc, I was really disappointed. It wasn’t what I had expected. It was so different. At first, I thought some of the songs sounded like Otis had phoned them in. My first impression was that Otis had run out of juice. Maybe I was having a bad day and wasn’t really ready for something this different from an artist I really like. So, I gave it a couple of more listens just to be sure I wasn’t missing the boat. I was wrong. This is a great disc.

On this one, Otis has found a groove. It is subtle and always there most of the time. It reminds me of Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Goin’ On” album. The songs are softer, but the groove is always there. In a certain way, these are not songs, but snippets or snapshots of feelings of a particular moment. I think Otis wants you to feel or experience what going on through the magic of music. If you let them, the songs will suck you in to what’s happening. Before you know it, you are surrounded by an atmosphere of emotion and feelings. All you can do, is tune in and become part of what it is all about. Go for the ride; it is good.

As usual, Otis supplies blurbs about each song. I didn’t look at them until I started writing this review. A lot of these songs are about love. Topics covered include a man looking for love and sunshine, someone waiting for a lover to return, a musician who misses his guitar dealing with the pain of the tragic death of his child, an 8-year old black boy who falls in love with an 8-year old white girl and wants to walk her home from school. Some of the other subjects covered include a couple that breaks up, and the man moves on to a young girl down the street, a guitar player with a new girlfriend and a new family that is crazy about him. Some of the other songs cover a man who says he will walk on water to get his woman back, a married woman who leaves her husband for another woman, a married man who kills his mistress, and a ghost who wants his lover to join him in the afterlife.

All in all, this is a nice collection the usual observations from Otis Taylor. I was really was impressed with Otis Taylor’s daughter Cassie. She is starting to establish herself vocally and instrumentally. Her bass playing is solid and her vocals right there. More than just a family member, she is making a substantial contribution to the Otis Taylor package.

If you are an Otis Taylor fan, get the disc. If you are not, get it anyway. Take the time to give a listen and you will be haunted and rewarded with some incredible experiences.