Monday, July 22, 2013

Robert Randolph Presents the Slide Brothers reviewed by Steve Jones

Robert Randolph Presents the Slide Brothers
The Slide Brothers
Concord Records
11 tracks

Listening to Sacred Steel in and of itself can be a religious experience. Born in the House of God Church over 80 years ago, Robert Randolph is the most familiar of the standard bearers for this musical tradition and here he has brought together the preeminent men who are keeping this wonderful music form alive and thriving.  Calvin Cooke, Aubrey Ghent, Chuck Campbell and Darick Campbell are the Slide Brothers.  They were all raised in the Church of the Living God and when you listen to this album you can see that some form of almighty power is motivating these guys to levels of stratospheric musical genius.  Phil Campbell also sits in for some of the tracks on guitar as does  Robert Randolph on guitar and slides.

The album opens with “Don’t Keep Me Wonderin’,” an Allman Brothers anthem that Duane and Dickey would amaze audiences with their dual slide prowess. Here the Campbell Brothers fill that role with Calvin Cooke providing the vocals.  The lap steel sound adds an almost nasal sort of cool inflection to the high end notes and the slide slips and maneuvers over the strings.  The two guitars flirt with the heavens as they wail out this great tune; it is a highly charged and emotional ride.  Things slow down for George Harrison’s “My Sweet Lord” but the emotions remain high.  Jimmy Carter’s vocals are in a great praise mode and then Aubrey testifies as the Campbells continue their guitar onslaught.  Marvelous!  Ghent and Cooke then wail on “Sunday School Blues” as Ghent sings and growls out this piece.  Then the Campbells perform a an almost mystical instrumental version of “Wade In The Water.”  If God is not motivating and influencing these guys then I do not know what is because this was a truly amazing piece of work. Shemekia Copeland fronts the band and Randolph takes up the sacred steel for “Praise You.” Robert’s brother Marcus adds some cool dobro and Jason Crosby’s organ really churches this one up nicely as Robert and Shemekia both exit our Earth’s atmosphere.

Cooke fronts the Campbell’s in “It Hurts Me Too,” the classic Elmore James cut.  James would appreciate how these guys handle this song as the same guys also later cover his “The Sky Is Cryin’.”James influenced all the blues rockers along with these Sacred Steel masters and these two cuts are a beautiful homage to Elmore.  Ghent and Cooke sing and play “Catch That Train,” singing together and in a call and response; so simple a set of lyrics and yet such a moving piece.  The Campbells manipulate the strings for the traditional  “Motherless Children” as Drew Ramsey and Shannon Sanders sing.  The guitars really steal the show from the vocals on this.  Cooke does his own tune “Help Me Make It Through,” with just him playing and singing with a regular guitar and drums providing a backbeat.  Extraordinary stuff; the slide and vocals trade off in fronting this.  The CD closes with “No Cheap Seats In Heaven” as Ghent sings to testify behind his glorious guitar, hand claps and Lori Ghent’s and Drew Shannon’s  backing vocals.

If you are new to Sacred Steel then this can serve as your primer.  You can learn all about the various forms and uses of slide guitar in sacred and secular songs.  Transforming the traditional, popular and church songs into whirling dervishes of superlative musical sounds where the guitar takes on a voice of it’s own.  This is not the SRV or Duane Allman sort of slide work, it is Nashville and the churches of the deep South sort of slide.  Randolph brings us his friends and mentors on a super album of music that will inspire the listener while also completely entertaining them.  The lines of sacred and secular blur, but even the most adamant atheist will be moved in some way here.  Highly recommended!

Reviewed by Steve Jones

All In reviewed by Rick Davis

All In
Sena Erhardt
Blind Pig Records
11 Tracks

The Sena Erhardt band is creating quite a stir in the blues world with the release of their second CD All In, which was mixed, recorded, and produced by Jim Gaines at Bessie Blue Studios in Tennessee. The multi-Grammy Award winner Jim Gaines has worked with rock and blues artists like Santana, Luther Allison, Albert Collins, George Thorogood, and Stevie Ray Vaughan. Sena recently shared some insight into the band’s first experience of working with Jim Gaines. “I had the good fortune of recording this album at Bessie Blue Studios in Tennessee with Jim Gaines. The gifts of his experience, insights and vision were so inspiring. In the stripped back setting of a country home-turned studio, Jim made the music the star, and helped bring the best performances out of all the musicians on the album. There were no pretenses—it was just about the songs and the stories behind them. I feel honored to have worked with such a legend and gentleman.”

The lineup remains the same regardless of whether they are in the studio or on the road. Ed Ehrhardt, Sena’s father, handles lead guitar, Steve Hansen is on bass, and Tim Hasler is the drummer for this solid, tight blues band, matching the vigor, drive, and intensity of Sena’s vocals and stage presence.

Seven of the eleven songs are originals written by Sena and her dad Ed on the new CD. They open with the heavy-duty original tune “Buried Alive.” Sena’s powerful voice combines with Ed’s blistering guitar solos. Sena’s vocals are straight from the heart on the Bert Russell R&B classic “Cry To Me” first released by Solomon Burke in 1962. The funky title track “All In” offers the convincing lyrics “either you are all in or I’m out.”  Be prepared for fireworks on the Tom Hambridge/Gary Nicholson tune “I Want To Get You Back.” Sena’s vocals are as explosive as Ed’s guitar solos. Listening to Sena sing the Jessie Mae Robinson tune “Cold Cold Feeling” will make your veins run cold. The song was done originally by T-Bone Walker and later by Albert Collins. Ed Ehrhardt is magnificent as he delivers his guitar solos on this one. “Live and Learn,” another original, mixes in elements of blues and jazz guitar into one song. The next original “Man Up” is a hard driven rock “n” roll tune. “Storm’s Coming” starts as a slow blues number and builds to some ferocious guitar solos from Ed. They follow up with the original “Baby Valentine” which expresses the maturity of Sena’s voice as well as any tune on the CD. The fourth cover song “So Excited,” written by B.B. King/Gerald Jemmott, is a perfect song for the band particularly with Sena’s sultry voice and Ed’s Riley B. King guitar style. The original closing song, “Dreamin’ Or Dyin,” is a slow, soulful ballad simmered with just a hint of country adding a nice finishing touch to the album.
This second album shows a tremendous about of creativity and versatility by a relatively new blues band with a rapid ascent to the top. The Sena Ehrhardt band is well on their way to achieving the notoriety they so richly deserve. This is one great band to watch in the future.

Reviewed by Rick Davis

Split Second reviewed by DIane Mandell

Split Second
Nicole Hart & Anni Piper
Blues Leaf Records
12 tracks/52:17

Although Nicole and Anni had never met before this recording, Blues Leaf Records brought Nicole from Florida, Anni from Australia, Juke Joint Jonny from California, and a host of other musicians together in New Jersey to create this collaboration. Both Nicole and Anni signed with the record label in 2008 and have released solo albums since then.

Nicole jokes she's been singing since the doctor took her out of her mama and spanked her for air, "....that was my first high note!"  With her father's model as an opera singer, Nicole began singing church soprano as a young girl.  Later she sang harmony in Capella madrigal groups and choruses.

Anni began playing electric guitar at 12.  She became a devoted musician at 14 when she received her first bass.  She attributes her blues direction initially to the Paul Butterfield Blues Band when she first heard the band play "Born in Chicago".

Featured here are Nicole Hart on vocals and Anni Piper on bass and vocals.  Ron Rauso plays electric guitar, Juke Joint Jonny is on acoustic guitar and dobro, Sandy Mack plays harp, Sim Cain is on drums and  John Ginty handle the keyboards.

Another relatively long album, this one is definitely a keeper!  Great female vocals and harmonies, blues harp by 2010 Blues Hall of Fame inductee, Sandy Mack, and a host of other musicians, combine their talents to create a great album you can listen to over and over again (I've listened to it at least 20 times so far in the past month). 

Although I'm a fan of every single track, some of my favorites are the fresh takes of oldie-goldies hits like Roy Orbison's 1962 "Dream Baby" and the Everly Brothers 1961 "Walk Right Back".  Nicole's soulful original song "Listen to the Rain Fall" is another absolute favorite.  In a male-dominated business, it is always a treat to listen to women who can deliver the blues.  Highly, highly recommended.

Reviewed by Diane Mandell

Tough Times Don't Last reviewed by DIane Mandell

Tough Times Don't Last
Grady Champion
Shady Grady Music
12 tracks/49:34

The youngest of 28 children, Champion was raised on a farm in rural Canton, Mississippi, near Jackson.  He began singing gospel in the church choir at eight years old.  After graduation he moved to Florida and played in blues clubs before recording his first album in 1998.  A 2010 International Blues Challenge Winner and 2012 Blues Music Award Nominee, "Tough Times Don't Last" is his seventh album release.

Champion's lyrics tell of hard times tempered with hope for a better tomorrow.  The album is a nice mix of blues, gospel, R&B and pop.  "Glory Train" is rich with piano and harmonica and gospel-like lyrics,  " ...Sometime this old world can make you feel you life's a life in vain.  Never mind how you feel....the conductor will welcome you aboard this glory train." 

Grady Champion is featured on Vocals, Guitar, Harmonica,  Joining him are Caleb Armstrong:  Guitar, String Arrangements, Production, Granard McClendon, Nathan Keck, Chris Gill:  Guitar, Marquis Champion:  Bass Guitar, Lil Cal Jackson:  Drums, Larry Addison:  Piano, Kevin Culver, Steve Wilkerson:  Keyboards, Amy Lott:  Clarinet, and Thomasine Anderson:  Background Vocals.

My favorite track is "Mississippi Pride" with its folksy feel, sweet yearning harmonica, and lyrics about Champion's Mississippi childhood.  The title track, "Tough Times Don't Last" has a nice clarinet solo that catches the ear.  The surprise track is "What Would Christmas Be Without You?" which is definitely a refreshing switch from the usual holiday tunes.  Certainly enough going on throughout the album to warrant a listen.

Reviewed by Diane Mandell

Who Ya Kiddin’ reviewed by Rick Davis

Who Ya Kiddin’
Jimmy Nick & Don't Tell Mama
Jimmy Nick Music
5 tracks

Now twenty-something, Jimmy Nick started playing in Chicago blues clubs at age 16.  Suburban NightLife Magazine voted the group the best band under 21 in 2006 and 2007.  Since then he's shared the stage with the likes of John Mayall, Ted Nugent, Savoy Brown, Kenny Wayne Shepherd and Los Lonely Boys. Jimmy has also been a finalist in the 2012 Chicago Blues Guitar Slinger Challenge and the winner of the 2012 Illinois Blues Challenge.  The band's first album, "Whiskey N' Rain", was released in 2011 with "Who Ya Kiddin'" their next offering. 

Produced by Jim Goffron, Ben Thompson and Joel Bauer, this was recorded and mixed at Gretsch Studios, Elmhurst, IL.  Along with Jimmy Nick Goffron on vocals, guitar and blues harp are Ben Thompson on tenor saxophone, background vocals,
Lowell Todd on bass and Joel Baer on drums and  background vocals

The five tracks are rocking, high-energy blues with plenty of harp, sax and guitar.  The third track "Somebody Been Eating My Sweet Potato Pie" has great guitar riffs, sax rolls, and lyrics about the storyteller's feeling that someone else has been fooling around with his woman while he's been gone.  Another track, "If You Don't Like My Cookin'...(Get The Hell Outta' My Kitchen) has ample harp and sax complementing the driving guitar.  I'm sure we'll be hearing more from these "new" guys in the future!

Reviewed by Diane Mandell

I'm A Bluesman reviewed by Diane Mandell

I’m A Bluesman
Billy Jones Bluez
American Blues Recording Company
7 tracks/34:12

Billy Jones is a 49 year old bluesman from North Little Rock, AR.  He started his musical interest as a little boy playing with a toy plastic guitar his grandfather gave him.  Jones started playing real guitar by 5th or 6th grade and was accomplished enough by age 14 that he began playing gigs and traveling with other established musicians.  By his twenties he had his own band and played to troops at military installments in 42 states for nearly a decade.  His first album was released in 2004.  His second album, "My Hometown", released in 2007, was ranked #6 by Real Blues Magazine in their top 100 CDs list.

Produced by Theophilus Jones Jr with most words and music also by Theophilus Jones Jr, Billy Jones Bluez is: Billy Jones, guitar, vocals, Corey Bray, keyboards, Derrick "Do Dirty" Kendrick's, bass, and Rickey "Quicksand" Martin.  Also on album:  Palmalee Byrd, bass and Reginald "the Professional" Hammeth on drums

The musician some describe as reclusive does not have a lot of personal trivia available on the web. Jones has said he wants his blues to be modern enough to appeal to today's music listeners.  The album uses simple, street lyrics about growing up in the ghetto, the blues and love relationships.  Many of the tracks are layered with synthesizer special effects and backgrounds.   My favorite tracks are "The Iceman" with its boogie keyboards and Jones' vocals reminiscent of Jimi Hendrix and "Do Right Baby" also with boogie keyboards and nice guitar riffs.

Reviewed by Diane Mandell

This River reviewed by Diane Mandell

This River
JJ Grey & Mofro
Alligator Records
10 tracks/47:58

Raised in Jacksonville, FL, JJ Grey made his record debut in 2001 with Blackwater.  "The River" is his sixth studio album.  The album is named for the St. John's River near his hometown.  Many of his songs portray his love for the North Florida wilderness.  Although he doesn't consider himself an environmentalist, Grey works with multiple water and game conservation groups.  Most tracks were recorded live at a studio in Saint Augustine and at Grey's home studio named, "The Egg Room".

Many of Grey's songs have appeared in film and television including "House", "Crash", "Flashpoint" and "The Hoot".  In 2009, he wrote his first film score for the Emmy Award winning documentary, "The Good Soldier".

Grey has toured on four continents and shared stages with The Allman Brothers, BB King, Ben Harper, Jeff Beck, Mavis Staples, Booker T. Jones, to name a few.  When asked about his past or future plans, he's quoted as saying, "I'm just a salmon swimming upstream.  Going back home, I reckon.  I don't know why and I quit caring why a long time ago.  I guess there is no 'why' that my mind could understand anyway.  All I do know is that I've enjoyed and I'm still enjoying every second of just being here and doing whatever it is I'm doing."

"The River" is a relatively long album, nearly 50 minutes, with most songs five minutes or more in length.  There are lots of different instruments at work on this album along with various vocals.  In my opinion, the best tracks are "The Ballad of Larry Webb", a song about a man who found joy in spite of his unenviable simple life and the title track with its minimalist guitar and soulful lyrics about the healing power of Grey's beloved river.  
Produced by Dan Prothero and JJ Grey
All tracks except "On The Edge" written and arranged by JJ Grey
JJGrey:  Lead and Backing Vocals, Electric Guitar, Harmonica, Tambourine, Bass, Acoustic 6- & 12-String Guitar
Andrew Trube:  Electric Guitar, Lap Steel Guitar, Acoustic Guitar
Anthony Farrell:  Organ, Piano, Clavinet, Electric Guitar
Todd Smallie:  Bass
Anthony Cole:  Drums, Organ
Art Edmaiston:  Tenor and Baritone Sax
Dennis Marion:  Trumpet
Stan Lynch:  Special Guest Shaker

Reviewed by Diane Mandell