Blues Reviews
June/July 2017

Selwyn Birchwood
Pick Your Poison
Alligator 2017

A thirty-two year old native Floridian, Birchwood became enthralled with the blues while investigating the root influences of his hero, incandescent rocker Jimi Hendrix. His pursuit led him to the music of Buddy Guy, the three Kings, and Albert Collins, and since his band’s victory at the 2013 International Blues Challenge he has expanded his tastes even more.
The cliché “pick your poison” usually suggests a choice between multiple unappealing alternatives. On Birchwood’s second album, the choices are eclectic rather than toxic, with enough variety to pique the interest of most blues fans. He composed all thirteen tunes on this nearly hour-long disc, and is backed forcefully by Regi Oliver on flute and saxophone, Huff Wright on bass, and Courtney “Big Love” Girlie on drums. His own chops on guitar and lap steel are evident throughout.
There is no Hendrix or King in “Trial by Fire,” the opening track, which opens with a few bars of unencumbered flute and evolves into a Mississippi hill country outing reminiscent of R.L. Burnside or Junior Kimbrough: repetitive lyrics and riffs, emphasis on rhythm as opposed to melody. Another surprise awaits in “Even the Saved Need Saving,” an uptempo tune which is assuredly a gospel number despite lack of specific reference to a deity. Its plea for justice and tolerance presages themes that recur in subsequent tracks. After another hill country song, the following title track is a jaunty cautionary tale which may be about alcohol, injectable drugs, or self-defeating anger and resentment - pick your poison.
Jimi Hendrix’s influence emerges in “Heavy Heart” and again in “Are Ya Ready?” as Birchwood proves that he can blast out rapid notes and deploy the wah-wah pedal adeptly. More blues sub-genre adventures ensue: “Reaping Time” is a slow number with some really fine guitar work, and Selwyn’s smooth singing in it is evocative of the pipes of contemporary acoustic bluesmen Eric Bibb and Guy Davis. The penultimate track, “Lost in You,” is another slow tune with mellow atmospheric sax by Oliver that would be appropriate for a bar lounge at 1:58 AM.
Although there are few memorable melodic hooks in the set, the music is insistent, and several songs have creative internal tempo changes. Lyrics are imaginative, particularly in the topical “Police State” and “Corporate Drone.” Unrequited love, a blues staple, not unexpectedly appears as a theme several times.—Steve Daniels

Billy Price
“Alive and Strange”
VizzTone Label Group Nola Blue Inc. nola-blue.com billyprice.com

Billy Price has been singing for over five decades, he’s collaborated with Roy Buchanan, done numerous tours, earned a degree and a position at Carnegie Mellon University in software engineering. The current Billy Price Band is Steve Delach (guitar), Tom Valentine (bass), Dave Dodd (drums), Jimmy Britton (keys), and Eric DeFade plays tenor sax. Best way to judge a band is not by their CD but what they sound like live and Billy’s laying out both with a disc recorded live at Club Cafe’ in Pittsburgh Pa. and one studio recording at the Carnegie Mellon School Of Music. The sound quality is so good you hardly realize it’s live except for the occasional crowd reactions. They’ve included some classics, obscure covers and a few originals with an occasional guest sitting in.
The set kicks off with “It Ain’t a Juke Joint Without the Blues” the band quickly gets into the swing jumping right into another classic, “Lifestyles Of The Poor and Unknown” by William Bell as Price gets down with some blue-eyed soul. The horns heat up as the band gets backing vocals in the mix on a Price original, the title tune “Something Strange.” Slowing the pace, Price croons “This Time I’m Gone for Good” as the guitar cries and the sax solo moans. The extra horns of Joe Herndon and Matt Ferrero weigh in as Price pleads, baby hold on for “One More Day” then Billy takes on Percy Mayfield’s “Nothing Stays the Same Forever” his smooth bluesy vocal grow in intensity as the sax rips it up. With the band on a roll they blast right in to James Brown’s “Never Get Enough” as the band chimes in on shouts and take it to the bridge. The band undertakes Magic Sam’s “What Have I Done Wrong” as Billy almost hits an ultrasonic pitch in his plea for forgiveness and the guitar slips and slides, while the “Lickin’ Stick” gets funky. The band wraps up the live show with an easy swinger by Roy Milton, “R.M. Blue” each swing around a different member taking a turn in the spotlight. The one studio effort, the original “Makin’ Plans” has an easy vibe as the guitar responds to each vocal line and the horns cry and wail.
With this self produced effort Billy has reached his dreams, he’s still “Alive and Strange.” If you’re in the Pittsburgh area look up the Billy Price Band, you know it’s a groove.—Roger & Margaret White

Samantha Fish
Chills and Fever
www.rufrecords.de www.samanthafish.com

Samantha Fish has been winning over fans since her first record won Best Artist Debut at the 2012 Blues Music Awards in Memphis. She’s toured relentlessly with her trio as a red hot guitar slinger and singer while sitting in with all the best players, but her new record is a real turning point. Seeing her live show with this band before I even heard the record I was just knocked out, you’re in for a treat with “Chills & Fever.” She’s joined the funk of a New Orleans horn section featuring Mark Levron on trumpet and Travis Blotsky saxophone with the rockin’ rhythm & blues of the Detroit Cobras band, Joe Mazzola rhythm guitar, Steve Nawara bass, Kenny Tudrick drums, Bob Mervak electric piano and her own talents. To get the full flavor she put it all together at Detroit’s 45 Factory with producer Bobby Harlow and enlisted the Cobras ethic, with so many great songs already written let’s do all covers. Fish insists “I don’t think I ever enjoyed making a record quite as much. I love the sound of the brass and the edgier intensity.” Get ready for some “Chills & Fever.”
Samantha’s guitar charges in front of the band on Jackie DeShannon’s “He Did It” also covered by The Ronettes and Detroit Cobras, as her voice rings through carrying into the title cut “Chills & Fever” leading Ronnie Love’s 1961 burner. Mellowing to Barbara Lewis’ “Hello Stranger” (Seems Like a Mighty Long Time) her vocal stops you in your tracks with the band gently riffing behind. The Excello single “It’s Your Voodoo Working” gets her in a frenzy as the horns honk behind each verse till her guitar screams forth then quiets in exhaustion. Irma Thomas’ 1965 single “Hurt’s All Gone” takes Fish’s voice to the top of her game then she rushes into “You Can’t Go,” a slashing guitar toughening her vocal. A baritone leads into Nina Simone’s “Either Way I Lose” Samantha gives it a Winehouse-like reading to and vibratone guitar shivers under the horns before coming to the front. She covers the Eurythmics “Never Gonna Cry,” the Detroit Cobras’ “Little Baby” and “You’ll Never Change” but her strong yet sweet vocal on Allen Toussaint’s “Nearer To You” really shines. Then she unleashes a sassy toughness blasting out Ted Taylor’s Okeh hit “Somebody’s Always Trying” the guitar’s descending riff sends chills. Samantha returns to more familiar territory with Skip James’ “Crow Jane” draped in a North Mississippi embrace. The finale “I’ll Come Running Over” by Lynne Randell, Australia’s most popular performer of 1965, rocks out with a girl group, garage pout that leaves you with a smile on your face.
One spin of Samantha Fish’s “Chills & Fever” and you’re sure to get the sweats ’cause this is a flat out killer. —Roger & Margaret White

Harmonica Shah
If You Live to Get Old, You Will Understand
Electro-Fi 2016

A relative latecomer to the blues, Texas-born and Detroit-based Seward Daward Shah didn’t release his first album until the age of 54. Enconsed for a time in Oakland, CA, Shah was affected deeply by seeing Big Mama Thornton, Lowell Fulson, and Jimmy McCracklin, among others, perform in that hotbed of blues. He was already thirty when he picked up the harmonica, and cites Little Walter, Jimmy Reed, Junior Wells, and Lazy Lester as major influences on the “Mississippi saxophone.” Tough predecessors to match! But Shah wields the harp adeptly, producing his own spare yet supple and emotive style.
Once he began recording Shah has made up for lost time, recording eight albums in the last sixteen years, including the current dozen tunes. Recorded in summer 2015 with regular collaborators Jack DeKeyzer on guitar and Julian Fauth on piano, this set is graced also with the contributions of bassist Alec Fraser and percussionist Bucky Berger as the quintet navigates through a full hour of twelve-bar blues.
The dozen tunes are all originals, generally mining the hoary blues themes of blissful or unrequited love, addiction, financial folly, and inevitable mortality. Perhaps most unique is the lack of rhyme in the lyrics. We are so inured to rhyme that its absence can be jolting. When we hear a line end in “way,” we hardly expect the next line to end in “understand.” Is the effect unpleasant? Well, it’s all in the ear of the beholder. For myself, the verbal dissonance actually increased my attention to the generally entertaining lyrics…which leads to one caveat: the second song, “She Used to Be Beautiful,” features a vow by the singer to shoot his formerly attractive and compliant lover. Yes, the same vow also occurs in “Hey Joe” and innumerable other blues standards and obscurities alike, but there was too much misogyny in too much twentieth century blues - and society - in ostensibly less enlightened times; its recurrence here is disturbing.
Back to the music…which is consistently rewarding. Every track adheres to the standard blues form, and Shah’s harmonica playing is excellent throughout. His baritone vocals lack wide range but exhibit depth and nuance, even when he almost recites rather than croons, and he enunciates clearly. (Sound quality and production values are very good.)
One of my favorites songs of the set is “Walk That Lonesome Road,” a slow blues duet displaying beautiful interplay between Shah and DeKeyzer. Another is “She May Be Your Woman” (“but she sure come to see me some times”), in which Shah, DeKeyzer, and Fauth mesh flawlessly in front of the rhythm section. In fact, much praise is due Fauth and DeKeyzer: the former supplies tasteful and virtuoso keyboard fills and solos, and DeKeyzer similarly enhances the set with masterful guitar work that delves into jazz as well as blues tropes.—Steve Daniels

Eliza Neals
10,000 Feet Below
E-H Records LLC ElizaNeals.com

Eliza Neals started as a classically trained piano and opera prodigy but was unsatisfied with the direction her music was taking until she met Barrett Strong of Motown fame. As her mentor he guided her in the ways of rhythm & blues, unearthing her songwriting and performing skills. With three award-winning CD’s under her belt, “10,000 Feet Below” is her second collaboration with guitarist Howard Glazer. Eliza has taken complete charge of this offering as producer, songwriter, all vocals and keyboards with Glazer backing on all but two tracks along with a variety of rhythm sections.
Starting with a lone guitar and hand claps Eliza moans out “Cleotus,” a spare back porch chant sweetened by her own harmony vocals and slide guitar. She follows this vein with “Another Lifetime” adding organ while her voice and Glazer’s guitar flow freely together really letting her vocals soar. The taut pounding rhythm of “10,000 Feet Below” allows Eliza’s voice to build in intensity with each beat as Glazer’s guitar is driven into a frenzy of wails and whines lifting Eliza’s powerful vocals even higher and leaving no doubt she’s ready to fight the devil. Her voice rings out over the band toughly singing “You Ain’t My Dog No More” as a slippery slide answers each line and Eliza doubles down with her own backing vocals. Using her feminine wiles Eliza entices with vocals that quiet to a velvety whisper cutting through “Call Me Moonshine.” Eliza warns of the dangers of going “Downhill On A Rocket” as the slide guitar whines behind her vocals that invoke swamps, alligators, voodoo against a crooked smile as her own backing vocals and brew the song into a slow burn. The sparse arrangement on “Merle Dixon” has a taut squawking guitar against Eliza sweetly pleading to shut your mouth while “Burn The Tent Down” is hard rocking blues with a multi tracked vocal chorus. “Cold Cold Night” has the softer guitar of Paul Nelson slipping between Eliza’s piano as her layered vocals soar through this power ballad. The only cover, Skip James’ “Hard Time Killing Floor” is startling in the power of Eliza’s voice swooping and crying against just a haunting piano and Glazer’s ghostly guitar, each element building the tension. The finale is her own “At The Crossroads” a bold piano backing her voice accompanied by the gently echoing guitar of Billy Davis from Hank Ballard & The Midnighters fame, as she holds nothing back.
With “10,000 Feet Below” Eliza Neals has found her niche in songwriting and the proper backing to let her tough-as-nails voice soar above the crowd. —Roger & Margaret White

Taj Mahal & Keb Mo
TajMo
Concord

Taj Mahal and Keb Mo are a match made in blues heaven. Taj Mahal has been a fixture on the blues firmament since he released his first self-titled LP in 1968. He followed that with Natch’l Blues in 1968, the classic Giant Steps in 1969, the Real Thing in ’71 and Recycling the Blues and Other Related Stuff in ’72. In all he’s released or been on around 50 albums in his 50 year career. He’s earned two Grammy awards and he has brought a world view to the blues. Keb’ Mo’ released his first self-titled album in 1994 and, while his 11 releases pale in numerical comparison to Taj Mahal’s catalogue, he has won three Grammy awards and been nominated 11 times. He traces his exposure to Taj Mahal, who would become a friend and mentor, to an assembly at his high school. In the past decade or so he’s had an impact as strong as that of Taj 50 years ago. The magic the duo makes here is electric.
On the opener, Don’t Leave, Taj and Keb’, who co-wrote the song, trade vocals over Billy Branch’s harp and a sharp horn section of Sam Levine (tenor), Keith Everette (trumpet), and Roger Bissell (trombone). Taj’s humor is front and center when he sings, “Hot weather in the country/hot weather down south/hot weather in the desert/hot food taste in your mouth/butter beans and cornbread/grits and greens/candied yams and black eye peas…” It sounds like a place I wouldn’t want to leave. On She Knows How to Rock Me, Taj plays acoustic guitar, Keb has the resonator, Marcus Finnie is at the drums and Eric Ramey plays bass. That’s one of the slimmest of song personnel on the set. Taj sings “I’m goin’ downtown get me a rocking chair/gonna let my baby rock away from here/cause she knows how to rock me…” with Keb’ singing behind him. The guitar work is fantastic and the rhythm team in on time. The following All Around the World features Colin Linden on mandolin, Michael B. Hicks on piano, and Sheila E on percussion. Taj and Keb’ sing about their hope that there’ll be love all around the world. Quenton Ware plays a nice trumpet solo and the three principal horns are back, as well.
Om Sweet Om, besides having a cool title, is notable for Joe Walsh and Lee Oskar sitting in. Opening with Chester Thompson’s drums and cymbals, the guitar is center stage and Taj and Keb’ (who plays guitars, keys and percussion and co-wrote the song) are joined by the superb vocalist Lizz Wright. They sing of the “circle around everyone” and that “there ain’t no beginning and there ain’t no end.” Oskar’s harp is delicious and the background vocals are “right on,” as they sing. Shake Me In Your Arms is embraced by horns, this time out Jovan Quallo (sax), Roland Barber (trombone) and Quentin Ware (trumpet). Joe Walsh and Keb’ Mo’ are in the guitar chairs, Phil Madeira is at the B3, Marcus Finney on drums and Eric Ramey on bass. The song is a medium tempo rouser. “The bedroom door is open wide/don’t want to argue, fuss or fight/just shake me in your arms tonight.”
That’s Who I Am pairs Keb’ Mo’s and Taj Mahal’s guitars with Colin Linden’s mandolin on a spirited number on which Keb’ sings, “I’m a preacher/I’m a sinner/I’m a loser/I’m a winner/I got everything/I got nothin’/but I’m a fool for some real good lovin’.” Then Taj sings, “I’m a lover/I’m a fighter/I’m a reader/and I’m a writer/I got a ball/and I got a chain/I was looking for myself when I found you …that’s who I am.” It’s a wholly infectious song. Keb’ Mo’ and Al Anderson wrote the song. It’s not clear if that’s the NRBQ Al Anderson.
Following a sparse new take on the Sleepy John Estes tune Diving Duck Blues made popular many years ago by Taj Mahal, the fellas take on the Who tune Squeeze Box, with Walsh and Linden on board. Then comes the Keb’ Mo’-penned Ain’t Nobody Talkin’, a percussive, loping tune about Ruby, who “lived around the corner,” and Bobby, who “was across the way.” Ruby had her “mind made up” and Bobby, who was a married man, “didn’t stand a chance.” You can see where this is going. Ruby had a baby that she raised alone. “The whole town was whispering and walking/Everybody knows/ain’t nobody talkin’.” The songwriting and the playing are superb. Soul, co-written by Keb’ and Taj, features Keb’ Mo’ on guitars and Taj Mahal on ukulele and banjo on a tune that sings of soul power that references Caribbean and African influences and is as joyful as a song has a right to be. The closer, a spirited take on John Mayer’s Waiting On the World to Change sees a cameo from Bonnie Raitt, who joins the fellas on a barebones and powerful tune.
Taj Mahal and Keb’ Mo’ are touring in support of this album. If they come to a city near you, go see them. If this masterpiece album is any indication, it’s gonna be a blast.—Mark E. Gallo

Monster Mike Welch and Mike Ledbetter
Right Place, Right Time
Delta Groove Music 2017

What’s the punchy lead sentence here? Former youth guitar prodigy and former opera singer team up? Guitar maven and dynamic vocalist leave outstanding bands to form new duo? Two Mikes grab the mics?
Take your pick. Welch has been stellar guitarist for award-winning band Sugar Ray and the Bluetones, and Ledbetter has shared singing and guitar duties with the lauded Nick Moss Band. After a few gigs together, they sensed a rapport and produced this debut album. It’s a beauty. They are more than ably backed by an East Coast all-star trio of Anthony Geraci on keyboards, Ronnie James Weber on bass, and Marty Richards on drums.
Suffice it to say that there isn’t a loser among any of the dozen tracks, three penned by Ledbetter and two by Welch. The excellent liner notes by blues producer and historian Dick Shurman note the major influence on both Welch and Ledbetter of legendary Otis Rush, and that influence is particularly evident on “I Can’t Stop Baby,” the longest cut on the CD. It’s a Willie Dixon composition, quite similar to “I Can’t Quit You Baby,” a well-known Rush classic. On this track (and several others), ace saxophonists Doug James and Sax Gordon provide soulful accompaniment, while Welch plays dazzling Rush-style guitar and Ledbetter delivers a sterling vocal incorporating the falsetto ventures also done by Rush.
Interestingly, I heard echoes of another legendary bluesman in the Welch song “I’m Gonna Move to Another Country”: Little Milton (Campbell), whose style Welch and Ledbetter capture nicely. It’s hard to cite other album highlights, since top quality prevails throughout. The uptempo opener, “Cry for Me Baby,” features delicious interplay between Welch’s guitar and Geraci’s piano. “Kay Marie” and “Can’t Sit Down” are both Ledbetter mid-tempo shuffles with irresistible grooves. The horns are prominent in “Down Home Girl,” with its Albert King flavor. Kudos also to Laura Chavez, guest guitarist on four tracks, whose unique style provides nice contrast to Welch’s.
Welch’s leads in general are exemplary. He favors single notes and the high register, with greasy chords in the mix…and he doesn’t play too many notes! Ledbetter complements his playing beautifully, with full-throated, powerful, smooth, and pitch-perfect vocals. He deserves the rest afforded by the last cut, “Brewster Avenue Bump,” an instrumental with great sequential solos by Chavez, Welch, and Geraci. Kudos to Delta Groove for its usual clean production values on this fine album.—Steve Daniels

Billy Flynn
Lonesome Highway
Delmark CD 850

Although blues artist Billy Flynn is, no doubt, more heralded as the first-call guitarist for a carload of fabled legends (including Billy Boy Arnold, Kim Wilson, Mississippi Heat, Willie Kent, Jody Williams and Little Smokey Smothers as well as his musical mentor Jimmy Dawkins) the musician’s musician has also been fronting his own band for decades. All the while evolving into a dynamite vocalist and superbly idiomatic songwriter—except for a mercilessly primitive, instrumental cover of Billy Page’s classic “The ‘In’ Crowd,” the remaining, count ‘em, sixteen tracks here are all Flynn originals. Naturally, his super-simpatico, handpicked, all-star Chicago blues band (basically keyboardist Roosevelt Purifoy, bassist E.G. McDaniel, drummer Andrew “Blaze” Thomas, trumpeter Doug Corcoran and tenor saxist Christopher Neal) is top-notch as well, particularly the horn section—love the “south of the border” trumpet stylings on the Otis Rush—influenced “Lucky Kind.” Two thumbs up also to premier blues vocalist, Deitra Farr, who adds her touch to a couple of tracks (the advisory “Hold On” and the sincerely soulful “Good Navigator”). Flynn has the uncanny ability to expressively channel, not mimic, past authentic blues masters such as Earl Hooker (“Small Town”), Jimmy Reed, Chuck Berry, John Lee Hooker (“Waiting Game”),  Eddie Taylor, Robert Nighthawk (“Jackson Street”), J.B. Lenoir and all three Kings. A true blues alchemist at work.—Gary von Tersch

John Primer & Bob Corritore?
Ain’t Nothing You Can Do?
Delta Groove CD 175

Throughout their individual illustrious careers, Bob Corritore and John Primer have both earnestly exhibited their musical sympathies regarding the fundamental roots of the Chicago blues idiom. Ain’t Nothing is a most welcome follow-up to the duo’s well-received 2013 Delta Groove debut Knocking Around These Blues, with its selfsame nifty mix of covers and originals—comprising “stompin’ shuffles, rowdy dance floor packers and treacherous slow blues” as brief liners author Drew Verbis colorfully puts it. And did I mention the all-star supporting cast that boasts either Henry Gray or Barrelhouse Chuck on the piano bench, either Big Jon Atkinson or Chris James on guitar, either Troy Sandow or Patrick Rynn on bass and drumming dynamo Brian Fahey? Done. Pack-the punchers begin with great recalls of both Howlin’ Wolf’s “May I Have A Talk With You” and Sonny Boy Williamson’s “Elevate Me Mama” and continue with Primer’s timely “Poor Man Blues,” a raw version of Johnny Temple’s descriptive “Big Leg Woman,” a hard-driving Corritore original called “Harmonica Boogaloo” and a Jimmy Reed-styled recall of Snooky Pryor’s incisive “Hold Me In Your Arms.” Two thumbs up! —Gary von Tersch

Professor Louie and The Crowmatix
Crowin’ the Blues
Woodstock Records 2016

The name of the band may suggest an academic ornithologist investigating the esoteric behavior of a particular species of bird. No, actually, it’s the blues.
Based in Woodstock, NY, this quintet, led by Louie on keyboard and vocals, was long associated with The Band, erstwhile fellow Woodstock denizens. Louie fronts a rhythm section comprised of Gary Burke on drums and Frank Campbell on bass, with Miss Marie lending vocal and percussion support and John Platania handling the guitar duties.
This follow-up to the group’s praised 2016 Americana release, “Music from Hurley Mountain,” shifts back to blues roots. Featured are covers of such classics as B.B. King’s “Confessin’ the Blues” and Elmore James’ “Fine Little Mama.” All are considerably altered from the original versions of their progenitors. Jimmy Reed’s “Bright Lights, Big City,” for example, trades its Louisiana gumbo drawl for a meandering version driven by the Professor’s piano. Similarly, the oft-covered “High Heel Sneakers” is slowed from the uptempo renditions of many previous cover performers.
Jimmy Rogers, Big Bill Broonzy, and Jimmy McCracklin are some of the other late blues legends whose tunes appear on the album. While lacking the grit and gleam of the original renditions, the vocals provided by Louie and Marie fit well with the overall approach. Especially noteworthy is the track “Love Is Killing Me,” with multiple tuneful vocal harmonies, Campbell’s propulsive bass, and extra guitar contributions from Josh Colow and Michael Falzarano (the latter a frequent participant in Hot Tuna gigs).
Finally, kudos to Platania, whose name may be familiar from his three decades playing guitar for Van Morrison. His playing is the highlight of the album.— Steve Daniels

Southern Avenue
Southern Avenue
Stax/Concord

One of the great joys of reviewing music is the discovery of a new and exciting artist or band. Southern Avenue, a quintet from Memphis, is such a revelation. Named for the Memphis street that runs to the original home of Stax Records, the quintet has been together just long enough to have gelled, and gelled brilliantly. Comprised of sisters Tierini (lead vocals) and Tikyra Jackson (drums), Ori Naftaly (guitars), Daniel McKee (bass) and Jeremy Powell (keyboards), the music they write and perform is universal. Outside of a superb take on Slipped, Tripped and Fell In Love, the songs herein are all original.
The lead cut, Don’t Give Up, opens with a sparse guitar from guest Luther Dickson and hand claps before Tierini moans, “When it hurts real bad/don’t give up,” to which her sister sings response, pointing to their gospel backgrounds. As the guitar intensifies with a fuzztone, the drums become more pronounced and the seeming simplicity of the song is lost in its joy. And this is just the first song of a 10-song program of equally compelling songs, primarily about the complexities of relationships. What Did I Do is a lover’s plea for explanation on which Tierini sings, “I’m dying to know who’s got your attention/and do I have a chance of regaining your affection.” And on Love Me Right, she complains, “Ain’t nobody perfect/no matter how hard we try/but you make the same mistakes over and over” and “you take advantage of the fact that that I don’t want no one but you.” This is mature and emotionally charged songwriting. 80 Miles From Memphis is a medium tempo rocker. With a drum and cymbal intro Ms. Jackson sings, “Feel like cryin’/home’s so far away/I’m 80 miles from Memphis/cryin’ my blues away…” On Wildflower she reminds of Corrine Bailey Rae in her phrasing when she sings “I can’t win his heart/she stole the biggest part.” The feel of the song is jazzy and it allows the band to shine, particularly guitar, with Luther Dickinson again on slide, and drums. This is the standout on the disc. Vocally, it soars. “I love him so I lay it down…”
Rumble (“came home late/around three in the morning/Tennessee whiskey got my feelings flowing”) is a song about infidelity. The heroine of the story reached for her gun and they start to rumble; A fun song in a violent sort of way. The closer, Peace Will Come, goes out the way the set started. Sparse, with guitar and drums as Tierini sings, “I’ve got a feeling that peace will come.” This is an album already in contention for a Blues Music Award. Great stuff. —Mark E. Gallo

Knickerbocker All-Stars
Texas Rhody Blues”
JP Cadillac Records 2016

This is the third release from a rotating ensemble of East Coast jump blues mavens, and the third that I have reviewed for Big City Rhythm & Blues. The only problem: I’m running out of superlatives.
The project is comprised principally of Rhode Island-based musicians, particularly veterans or current members of venerable bands Roomful of Blues and Sugar Ray and The Bluetones. Saxophonist Rich Lataille, trumpeter Don Chanonhouse, and pianist Al Copley have appeared on each CD. This edition benefits by the addition of several performers from Texas, notably guitarslinger Jimmie Vaughan and vocalist Sugaray Rayford. Of renowned bluesmen, Sugar Ray Norcia has departed this outing of the project, but joining is famed guitarist and producer Duke Robillard.
All thirteen pieces are covers, highlighting tunes by Texans. Before you start listening, put on your dancing shoes! Monster Mike Welch, guitarist on nine of the tracks, kicks off the festivities with a series of nasty licks (and performs brilliantly throughout) while powerhouse vocalist Rayford picks up the vocal on “Texas Cadillac.” Rayford comports himself equally well on “I Still Love You Baby” and the longest track, “Respirator Blues.” Also handling the singing on three cuts is Willie Laws, particularly distinguished on the mid-tempo “You’ve Got Me Licked.” Laws has been on all three Knickerbocker releases, as has vocalist Brian Templeton, whose two efforts here include the lilting closer, “Tell Me What’s the Reason.”
Vaughan and Robillard relieve Welch and share guitar duty on a trio of endeavors, including “I Have News for You,” composed by the late famed drummer and bandleader Roy Milton. On those tracks Robillard’s raspy vocals, while lacking the power and syrupy smoothness of the other singers, works well.
Musicianship is uniformly impeccable and energetic, but special kudos are due the horn section of Lataille, Chanonhouse, Doug James, and Carl Querfurth; jump blues is horn blues, and these guys bring years of experience, a dedication to the genre, and plenty of chops. I agree with JP Shearar’s liner note advice: “Play this recording loud!” and often.—Steve Daniels

Grateful Dead
The Grateful Dead--50th Anniversary Edition
Rhino 2CD
Van Morrison
The Authorized BANG Collection
Legacy 3CD
The Seeds
The Seeds
Big Beat LP

Holy moly, has it been fifty years? Recent months have seen several tremendous, well-thought-out projects devoted to musicians and bands that were, at least for this slowly aging hippie, the sounds of the 60s. One I haven't gotten around to exploring yet is The Doors 50th Anniversary Deluxe Edition (also on Rhino) but the three I cover here are all just as noteworthy. The Dead package has one CD devoted to a nicely remastered version of their debut album, that was released to a San Francisco crowd in March 1967 "just as the Summer of Love and the psychedelic age were really starting to kick in," as informative essayist Jesse Jarnow very accurately puts it. The second disc, also creditably remastered, presents the band in concert on July 29th and 30th, 1966 at the Vancouver Trips Festival (held at the massive P.N.E. Garden Auditorium) that was a sort of climax for the long-brewing local, avant-garde scene and "a showcase for numerous Vancouver filmmakers and artists." It also offers a particularly revealing insight into what that first album, produced by Dave Hassinger, would sound like in that, aside from a pair of titles (the resplendent opener "The Golden Road (To Unlimited Devotion)" and a folky cover of Bonnie Dobson's song about nuclear fallout "Morning Dew"), the remaining seven songs were present and accounted for after being honed into shape at gigs like the one in Canada. These include daringly intrepid, jug band loose covers of several blues songs--Sonny Boy Williamson's "Good Morning Little School" and a very rearranged version of Gus Cannon's Jug Stompers 1922 classic "Viola Lee Blues." Dead neophytes and dedicated alike, gather 'round. Another contemporaneous release shines the spotlight on the Belfast Cowboy, Van Morrison well before he became the Van Morrison he's been for decades. As the project title indicates this also is the 50th anniversary of Morrison's first solo album for Bert Berns--a fellow musician, songwriter, producer and record company owner who packed a lot of living into his 38 years. This 3 CD set contains all of his legendary Van Morrison (post Them) BANG recordings, from that first, exemplary album on down, as well as the original mixes of master recordings on CD for the first time and numerous previously unreleased recordings. Liner notes by Morrison put everything into perspective and then there's the music--from that mind-boggling first album (with his monster hit "Brown Eyed Girl," the transfixing "TB Sheets," the elemental "Madame George" and a great "Midnight Special" among others) to various-takes disc two, to a 31 track "contractual obligation" session, that features such unforgetables as "Blowin' Your Nose" (a commentary on the title of that debut album), "The Big Royalty Check," "Want A Danish" and the gloriously trippy "Freaky If You Got This Far." Mellow memories. Worth the bucks.
Onto the garage/folk-rocking Seeds--aside from Love my favorite Los Angeles band. Helmed by the charismatic Sky Saxon, their music was elemental, raw and loaded with LOUD, one-note guitar runs that, when coupled with Saxon's unearthly, mind-melting howls and stream of consciousness, drugs and sex-loaded ramblings resulted in some of the most "so bad it's good" Top Forty music around--their eponymous debut album ended side one with their classic pounder "Pushin' Too Hard" and began with the hook-heavy "Can't Seem To Make You Mine." It rarely made it to side two at gatherings I was at. This vinyl reissue presents that wellworthy album in its original mono mix (unavailable on vinyl since 1966) as well as a second disc devoted to a variety of often fascinating, first-vinyl-issue outtakes, among them the haunting, never before released "The Other Place." Reissue producer Alec Palao has outdone himself with this one! 'Nuff said. — Gary von Tersch

Dawn Tyler Watson
2Jawbreaker!
www.dawntylerwatson.com

Winner of the 2017 International Blues Challenge, Dawn Tyler Watson has been winning awards and knocking out audiences in Canada for two decades. Born in England, raised in Ontario, now living in Montreal and much like the sweet multi layers candy confection Dawn’s fourth release “Jawbreaker” consists of many layers, soul, jazz, gospel and blues all rolled into a sultry treat. Ten of the thirteen cuts are her originals and she’s backed up by the Ben Racine Band, consisting of John Sadowy on keys, Fancois Dube bass, Nicky Estor drums, “Little Frankie” Thiffault on tenor sax and Mathieu “Moose” Mousseau baritone sax with Ben on guitar and Dawn’s vocals partner. The chemistry between Dawn, her powerful songs and the band is like an atomic fireball, this “Jawbreaker” is red hot.
Starting with just tambourine and slide guitar of Paul Deslauries, Dawn’s regular duo partner for the cover “Can’t Nobody (But God)” the full band joins in and with every verse elevates the energy then they roll right into “Shine On” for some joyous hand clapping gospel that will have ’em dancin’ in the aisles and raising the roof. The soulful fervor between the vocals of Watson and Ben Racine on “Just A Little Bit More” has a jazzy sexual libido that heats things up before blasting off with some rockin’ keys on the pseudo rockabilly “Son Of A Gun.” A slow acoustic bass leads Dawn into “Tootsie Roll Blues” as she invokes his hard candy to go with her sticky sweets as piano and harp wrap up the melody. The gentle ballads of Bob Dylan’s “Forever Young” and the country-tinged tale of tainted love “I Don’t Live Here Anymore” showing Dawn’s vocal range. With some keyboard-driven horn heavy R&B and a tougher tone Dawn belts out she’s feelin’ kind of “Rotten” and the horns play some scorching licks while Dawn expresses her craving for “Smoked Meat” while they have some fun with Ray Charles’ “Greenbacks.” Watson gets a little funky as she declares “I See” through all your lies and alibi’s and the horns wallop a heavy punch but clearly it ain’t over and “It Ain’t Elvis” on the telephone. Concluding with a reprise of “Shine On/Rise” with a tribal rhythm and a chorus of call and response gospel as the music slowly fades into a heartbeat.
Dawn Tyler Watson’s got another winner on her hands with “Jawbreaker” and the bonus is her live shows are even better, so pick up this CD and see her in person. —Roger & Margaret White

Sammy Eubanks
Sugar Me
Underworld Records 2016

Sammy Eubanks resides in the Spokane, WA area, and has a large presence in the Northwest blues scene. Like many bluesmen, he began as a rocker but eventually caught the blues fever, and has been honoring it for over two decades. He is an award-winning vocalist and his band has placed highly at the International Blues Challenge. “Sugar Me,” his fifth album, was recorded in Nashville. Don’t worry, though: blues still reigns in this set of ten compelling tunes, seven of which are covers.
The first cut, “It’s All Blues to Me,” sets out Eubanks’s history and philosophy in three pithy minutes, citing his initial exposure to B.B. King in 1971 as a transformative experience. Elvis, Ray Charles, and Jerry Lewis also receive mention as the band ensemble lays out a solid mid-tempo groove anchored by the insistent bass of Darren Theriault and drums of Chris Kimmerer. I’m in!; even before the funky guitar solo. (Eubanks, Bob Britt, and Matt Hauer provide the tasty and nasty guitar parts, although liner notes fail to identify soloists for each song.) “Stop That Grinnin’ “ ensues, a chugging shuffle with slide guitar that overcomes some awkward but risible lyrics (“Stop that grinnin’ and take off some linen…”). “Blues All Mornin’ “ features Sammy in full-throated soul mode, supported by organ backing by renowned keyboard man Reese Wynans. Next is a cover of Willie Dixon’s “I Just Want to Make Love to You.” Nobody can do it like Muddy Waters did, so instead of trying the band converts it into a swinging rocker, and continues rocking with “My Baby’s Gone,” penned by Cesar Rosas of Los Lobos.
“Sugar Me,” the title tune, deploys “sugar” as a verb, but my English teacher sensibility was assuaged by the danceable shuffle driven by bass and drums. Guest pianist Scott Saunders steps up on “No Excuse for the Blues,” for me the highlight of the set, as the whole band plays with zest and verve and Eubanks displays his full vocal range. Perhaps as a nod to the Nashville milieu, “Born to Love You” is a lilting country ballad. The penultimate “It’s My Life Baby” by famed composer Don Robey leads to the rousing closer, Eubanks’ “I’m Gonna Leave You,” which sports a Keith Richards opening riff from the Rolling Stones’ “Brown Sugar.”
Sugar again. This entire album is sweet…and spunky…and solid…and indeed the man can sing!— Steve Daniels

Jimmie Bones
“Snakebit And Wandering”
Funky D Records funkydrecords.com jimmiebones.com

This is the debut recording of Jimmie ‘Bones’ Trombly after twenty years in the music business and playing on multi platinum selling recordings. Starting in Detroit with Robert Bradley’s Blackwater Surprise he soon joined forces with an unknown rapper named Kid Rock handling keyboards, backing vocals and harmonica in Rock’s Twisted Brown Trucker band since 1996 and has numerous co-writing credits. “Snakebit and Wandering” is the first glimpse of Jimmie Bones on his own covering vocals, piano and organ, featuring the backing by the Howling Diablos, Erik Gustafson guitar, Mo Hollis or Mike Marshell bass, Johnny Bee Badanjek drums and numerous guests. All songs were written by Jimmie Bones and old friend, producer Tino Gross. Jimmie’s tough, mature vocals lead every song with a solid old-school blues rock groove.
His heavy left hand leads “Snakebit And Wandering” with shades of Dr. John and a swampy groove that slips into “Bring It On Over” that feels like The Band but it’s the vocals and organ that carry over guitarist Wayne Kramer’s squawking wah wah. Bones’ piano, organ and voice lament “When It’s Your Turn To Cry” as the wail of James Wailin’s harmonica, the bellow of David McMurray’s sax flow together but it’s Jimmie’s lyrics that are the most stinging. Bones takes it to the top and never lets up, singing “I Can’t Get Enough Of You” only pulling back for guitarist Jim McCarty to cut loose with a biting solo, it has the feel of a radio ready hit. A stand out track “Come As You Are,” confesses ‘but you’re never gonna leave as you come’ a bit of blue-eyed soul driven by Jimmie Bones’ heartfelt performance. With a driving pace, Springsteen-like storytelling, McCarty blasting Chuck Berry licks but it’s the powerful vocals that fuel this “Train Don’t Stop.” Jimmie is burdened by what he can’t or won’t change in the bluesy “Cross That I Bear” with powerful guitar from Trucker band mate Kenny Olson and taut whine of Jeff Grand’s slide against his piano. As a slow blues piano intro leads into his gruff whispered Waits-like intro, as Bones shakes off the dust from the “Devil’s Trail” then testifies with rockin’ gospel “Put Your Hands Together” it’s Bones’ warm rousing vocals that save your soul. A trio of guitar slingers: Wayne Kramer, Tino Gross and Mary Cobra, swarm around the piano on “Honey Flow” Kramer’s stinging solo rocks with an energy matched by Jimmie’s vocals. Bones belts out in a Twisted Brown Trucker style and attitude asking “Think Ya Wanna Know My Name” while a strong female back up wail takes Jimmie to the “Walk Away Side.”
Jimmie Bones has been warming up to “Snakebit and Wandering” for twenty plus years and it may be one of the best first releases I’ve heard in a while.—Roger & Margaret White

Mama SpanX
State Of Groove
Ideal Scene Music
www.mamaspanx.com

New York Blues Hall of Fame vocalist Nikki Armstrong is singer, songwriter, bandleader and Mama SpanX herself. Nikki was given the handle by friend and collaborator, the late Melvin Sparks and once you’ve heard “State Of Groove” it’s a name you won’t easily forget. Nikki pulled together a seven-piece band of bi-coastal musicians with diverse influences to create a sound that incorporates aspects of funk, soul, jazz and blues. This eclectic band includes drummer and songwriting collaborator Ben Beckley, blues guitarist Steve Johnson, Latin/jazz saxophonist Julie Sax, LA soul and gospel tenor saxophonist Steve Sadd, Harlin Spector on keyboards and six string fretless bassist David Abercrombie along with a few guest artists. The band’s mantra is ‘keep it in the groove’ and the dozen tracks with eleven originals were recorded live on a vintage 32 channel deck to analog tape giving the whole album the feel of classic funk.
The band takes off with “Rocket” on a steady climb, horns flaring and guitar go into a free fall, but Nikki’s commanding vocals keep it clearly on track. Mama’s soulful storytelling style is shown off as she confesses her “Wild Emotion” then the band rolls out some gritty licks as the hot sax and powerful vocals join forces, you’ll be on your knees and willing to “Crawl” as her lyrics get deep into the ugly reality of “Being Beautiful.” The jazzy groove and Julie’s flute on “Black & White” stand out but it’s the song’s message that really moves ya. You can smell the funk as this party gets hoppin’ while John “Beedo” Dzubak declares “Let’s Roll” and the band shakes it on down. The horns drift through a dream-like state as Nikki sings of love and the band takes a spin “Around The World.” With the band locked into a James Brown groove they let Mama do the “Thinkin’” and the “Alligator Boogaloo” was a soulfully funky instrumental by saxophonist Lou Donaldson but the addition of Mama’s lyrics gives it a bite. Guitar screams into a solemn rock power ballad that’s on the “Wrong Side of the Garden” then mellows to a simple piano accompaniment and soft backup vocals but it’s the lyrics that makes “Anywhere You Are.” Closing with all the funk they can stand, the horns, keys and solid beat take it to a higher place in a “State Of Groove.”
If you’re ready for some old school funk with a twist, Mama SpanX has your “State Of Groove” in good hands. —Roger & Margaret White

VARIOUS ARTISTS
Rock And Roll Music: The Songs Of Chuck Berry
Ace CD 1491www.acerecords.com

Recently departed rock ‘n’ roll pioneer Chuck Berry, with his enduring guitar licks, cheeky cockiness and catchy, often brashly attitudinal songs about cars, girls and sweet sixteen dance parties, had an instinct for what the kids wanted to hear before they did and gave it to them on 45 after 45 in the mid-1950s. His initial recording, “Maybellene,” was issued in May, 1955 and sold a million in a matter of weeks and was followed by other gems like the anthemic “Roll Over Beethoven,” the genre-defining “Rock And Roll Music,” the watching-the-clock “School Day,” “Almost Grown,” “Thirty Days” and “Carol.” Significantly, however, the flip-side of that first single, “Maybelline,” was the slow-paced, reflective “Wee Wee Hours” that revealed Berry’s deep blues roots along with traces of rockabilly and the then just-developing rhythm ‘n’ blues. This 24 title compilation shows what a wide-ranging influence Berry had with, often tepid, covers by the likes of Don Covay, the Beach Boys, John Hammond, the Swinging Blue Jeans, MC5, Marty Robbins, John Prine, Jay & The Americans and the Hollies. More laudatory efforts are offered by Buddy Holly (“Brown Eyed Handsome Man”), Elvis Presley (“Too Much Monkey Business”), Jerry Lee Lewis (“Little Queenie”), Sleepy LaBeef (“You Can’t Catch Me”) and Dave Edmunds, with his arousing “The Promised Land.” As the last paragraph in the New York Times obituary notes: “Mr. Berry’s music has remained on tour extraterrestrially—”Johnny B. Goode” is on golden records within the Voyager I and II spacecraft, launched in 1977 and awaiting discovery.” Indeed.—Gary von Tersch

Book

A Pure Solar World
By Paul Youngquist
University Of Texas Press, Austin, Texas

Subtitled Sun Ra And The Birth Of Afro-Futurism, Mr. Youngquist presents an informed and lively introduction to the life and times of this legendary visionary and very under-appreciated musician, composer, arranger and philosopher--who pursued a wide-ranging creative impulse that encompassed not only music but film and stage performance, graphic design (eye-catching album covers), public preaching and Saturnarian poetry over the course of the 79 years he resided on planet Earth (only visiting Saturn occasionally). As the blurb on the price page puts it: "In effect Sun Ra took jazz from the inner city to outer space, infusing traditional swing with far-out harmonies, rhythms, and sounds. Described as the father of Afrofuturism, Sun Ra created "space music" as a means of building a better future for American blacks here on Earth." I might add that Sun Ra also had an entire career early on, based in Chicago, as an accomplished rhythm 'n' blues and jazz recording artist and performer--beginning with Lil Green and Wynonie Harris' bands and continuing into the later forties with arranging stints for Fletcher Henderson and being part of a short-lived trio with Coleman Hawkins and Stuff Smith. But by 1952 and upset, more and more, with the plight of Black-Americans in the Windy City (among other things), Sun Ra had an epiphany--legally changing his name, composing more "advanced" songs and performing regularly as leader of his Space Trio--inventive drummer Tommy "Bugs" Hunter and multi-dimensional saxophonist Pat Patrick--two of the more accomplished musicians he had met in his travels. Now let me shift to the back cover and an encapsulatory quote from editor/author Barry Kernfeld: "Youngquist explains how Sun Ra's poetically illogical logic and musically purposeful nothingness offered, and offers, a pathway for escaping the often degrading experience of being African American in America. He dances seamlessly between hip insider talk and scholarly (often quite scholarly) observation, between fiction and history, between celebration and criticism." A must read--particularly for inquisitive musicians.—Gary von Tersch

 

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