Blues Reviews
Febh/March 2019

Benny Turner & Cash McCall
Going Back Home
Nola Blue Records

Home is, of course, Chicago, for these two still-performing veterans who recently linked up for this, Benny Turner-produced, project that pays tribute to their shared Windy City roots and the songs they used to play at various South and West Side clubs. They had never performed with each other before but you can feel the chemistry, especially when they’re joined by harmonica ace Billy Branch on a couple of tracks—a more pensive than usual treatment of Elmore James’ “It Hurts Me Too” (with Butch Mudbone on tasty slide guitar) and the closing track, a great cover of G.L. Crockett’s “It’s A Man Down There” (itself a reshaping of Elmore James’ “One Way Out”). Along the way, the duo also shine on a Fats Waller-like variation on the X-rated classic “The Dirty Dozens”; open the project with a bang with a soulful gospel-stomper, “Got To Find A Way” (that also features Turner’s daughters on backing vocals); a modern-day talking blues sermon reflecting on “Money” and the charmingly playful “Poison Ivy.” As Sallie Bengston of Nola Blue notes: “Today there is much debate about what is really blues and what isn’t. In my opinion, there is room for all of its variations, as the genre evolves along with the world we live in. However, it is also my opinion that not enough is done to celebrate, support and show true appreciation for the originators; for the great generation that laid the groundwork for so much of the music we enjoy today. There is so much to be learned from them, preserved from them, enjoyed by them.” Here’s a good example, before it’s too late once again.— Gary von Tersch

The Kentucky Headhunters
Live at the Ramblin’ Man Fair
Alligator Records 2019
Fasten your seatbelts and prepare to ride!

The Kentucky Headhunters have been a working ensemble under several names and with minor personnel changes for fifty years and their energy level is astounding for a group of septuagenarians! Original members Greg Martin, Richard Young, Doug Phelps, and Fred Young reunited as a quartet several decades ago, and here all four contribute vocals as Martin on lead and Richard Y. on rhythm ply the guitars, Phelps plucks the bass, and Fred Y. pounds percussion. This recording, in front of 25,000 zealous British fans on the band’s first-ever tour of England, provides enough adrenaline for the resuscitation of a corpse. An additional three tracks from their vault, featuring late great pianist Johnnie Johnson (of Chuck Berry fame), provides icing on the cake.
The dozen tracks include five covers, beginning with a version of “Big Boss Man,” made most famous by Jimmy Reed. It’s three-plus minutes of raucous raunch, with a propulsive, no-nonsense beat and the interplay of screeching guitars. The tempo slows slightly on “Ragtop,” but ramps up on “Stumblin’,” one of the best cuts of the set: an irresistibly danceable shuffle evoking memories of Chuck Berry and echoing some guitar riffs reminiscent of one of Berry’s acolytes, Keith Richards. The same mode persists with “Shufflin’ Back to Memphis,” which has a country rock flavor and sports some of the best dual guitar interplay.
That guitar intertwining shines again on a long version of the blues rock classic, “Have You Ever Loved a Woman?” Many are most familiar with Eric Clapton’s rendition of the song, which was written by Billy Myles and apparently first recorded by Freddie King. This version, introduced by screaming single guitar notes backed by crunching rhythm guitar chords, sports one of the raspiest vocals you will ever hear. Those gritty chords reappear on “Wishin’ Well,” giving way mid-song to a long, frantic lead guitar solo.
Have you inferred by now that this is indubitably a guitar-driven band? The brief “Walking with the Wolf” provides some variety, with Greg Martin playing impressive slide; the song sounds like Elmore James filtered through the Allman Brothers Band. It’s followed by the longest track, “My Daddy Was a Milkman,” whose lyrics inject some wry punchy humor and whose middle section delivers some Bo Diddley licks. The live set closes with the Headhunters’ take on the Lennon-McCartney Beatles tune “Don’t Let Me Down,” probably the actual last song of the live festival set, because the lead singer’s raspy vocal finally shows wear.
Kudos for inclusion of the three bonus tracks: a slow cover of “Rock Me Baby,” a spirited “Rock ‘n’ Roller” rave-up, and a mid-tempo “Hi-Heel Sneakers,” all showcasing some terrific piano from Johnnie Johnson.—Steve Daniels

Catfish Keith
Reefer Hound: Viper Songs Revisited
Fish Tail CD 016

Spellbindingly cutting-edge acoustic blues singer, songwriter and bottleneck slide guitar genius, the beguiling Catfish Keith surfaces with a timely compilation of pieces from eleven of the sixteen albums he’s released, since his 1984 debut on Kicking Mule, that represent his favorite old viper and party songs—most of which are garnered from the gleaming, golden era of classic blues and jazz in the late 1920s and 1930s, with a few from the swing era. He states, forthrightly, in his liners: “I love these old songs and “the stuff” that goes by many names, including muggles, gage, weed, Mezzrows, sticks of tea, shizzle, green, da kine, even jazz Woodbines. You get the idea.” Indeed. Picks among the 16 selections is difficult but I particularly like the way he re-invents the likes of Jack Teagarden’s “Texas Tea Party,” his way-cool medley of the Harlem Hamfats’ “Weed Smoker’s Dream” and Lil Green’s “Why Don’t You Do Right,” a “perfect piece of poetry” from Jazz Gillum titled “Reefer Head” and Frank Stokes’ classic about prohibition-era Memphis, “Crump Don’t Like It,” with the line “Baptist minister sister jumps up and begins to shout, I’m so glad whisky was voted out!” And then there’s Curtis Jones’ deep blues observation, “Reefer Hound” (“I’m high offa my reefer, I’m high as I can be. I’m so doggone high, the sky seems low to me”) and the surreal tale of “Willie The Chimney Sweeper“ as well as a couple of clever, in-the-same-vein Catfish originals that fit like a glove—the advisory “Put On A Buzz” and “Cool Can Of Beer,” that features some atmospheric bottleneck on a 1930 National Duolonian. This one sits comfortably alongside those Stash albums (Pot, Pipe, Spoon and Jug, Tea Pad Songs) you might have gotten stoned to in the 70s, Fire up, lean back and smile wide!—Gary von Tersch

Paul Oscher
Cool Cat
Blues Fidelity Recordings

Paul Oscher has always been a cool cat. He was the first white player in the Muddy Waters Band. On harp at just 17, he lived at Muddy’s house and traveled the world with him. This cat has been living the blues for fifty years, played and recorded with blues legends, won awards and has inspired generations of blues players. Moving to Austin, Texas in 2012 he knew life was upping the cool when he realized he’d moved a few doors down from his friend James Cotton who said, “Paul Oscher’s a monster, harp, piano and guitar - plays slide like Muddy” and Paul’s latest CD, “Cool Cat,” is about as cool as blues gets. Playing with old friends Johnny Ace or Sarah Brown on bass, Russell Lee, drums, Mike Schermer or Mike Keller, guitar with Tom Robinson and Eric Burnhardt on tenor and baritone sax. As an added bit of cool Paul displays his piano chops with a jazz quartet of Ernie Durawa, drums, Chris Alceraz, bass and Tomas Ramirez, tenor sax.
The only cover song, “Rollin’ and Tumblin’,” takes a different slant on the rhythm than his boss but the slide guitar and moans are as real as it gets; Cotton was right. The rest are all Oscher, his songs are so authentic they feel like instant classics. Hitting a piano and bari sax rumba rhythm he yowls about his “Money Makin’ Woman” that descends into a Spann-inspired “Blues And Trouble,” with Schermer’s skittering guitar adding to the agitation. Switching to guitar and harp Paul swings into “Hide Out Baby,” taking his girl to “a place she’s never been” then slides into a sultry rhythm, his harp weeps and moans as his girl shows she knows how to “Work That Stuff.” Miss Lavelle White sets him straight and she’s got it all under control as a “Dirty Dealin Mama” who always plays to win. Drummer Russell Lee recites the “Mississippi Poem” that segues into acoustic guitar, stomping percussion and back up chants on “Ain’t That A Man” (dedicated to Mr. Cotton), transforming “I’m A Man” into the life of James. Lee continues on “Poor Man Blues,” telling it like it still is in these trying economic times with some lowdown blues. An interesting interlude on the CD, switching to a jazz piano instrumental, his rhythmic strides and sparking fills driving the quartet keeping them “On The Edge,” then the title tune, “Cool Cat,” evolves through three incarnations, a spoken word prologue of a cool real-life story inspiring a jazzy piano and sax-led “Cool Cat,” while a long swinging “Cool Cat” adds to the groove with guitar, hand claps, a double rhythm section, cat calls and the squeals of children.
Paul Oscher’s “Cool Cat” confirms that he’s still the consummate blues man but his life in Texas has let him grow and that’s cool baby, it’s cool. —Roger & Margaret White

Vin Mott
Rogue Hunter
Self released CD

New Jersey bluesman Vin Mott’s sophomore album demonstrates, once again, his “burning love of Chicago, Memphis, Texas and New Orleans’ traditions of the blues together with an intensive study of harmonica performances and his songwriting skills achieved while attending the Berklee College of Music in Boston,” as the press sheet for Rouge Hunter somewhat awkwardly attests. Mott himself further declares in his brief liners: “This is a blues album. It was recorded live in a makeshift studio with minimal overdubs. Blues listeners often forget that what makes this music great and gives it charm is its flaws and lack of heavy production. This music is meant to be tough, haunting, joyous, and heartfelt.” The dozen Mott originals, recorded live on the floor, not only feature his emotionally insinuating harp work and stirring, whiskey-soaked vocals but also showcases his tight working band with Dean Shot on guitar, Steve “Pretty Boy” Kirsty on upright bass and drummer Matt Niedbalski. The set opens with the groove-rich, seemingly autobiographical “Car Troubles Make Me A Good Blues Singer” and closes with the reverb-drenched, surf-rocking, power chord instrumental “Greaser” that recalls Link Wray at his greasiest, with room along the way for a nifty Chicago shuffle novelty “Give Me Cornbread,” a house-rocking, slide guitar-driven homage to the legendary Elmore James titled “Rogue Hunter” and the Hubert Sumlin-influenced straight-ahead shuffle “I Got The Blues On My Mind .” Also noted is the powerfully tragic, detail-rich, first person story song “Paterson Is Crumbling” about life among the desolate, weed overgrown former factories and crime riddled streets of Northern New Jersey’s 3rd Ward community. Unreservedly recommended.—Gary von Tersch

Boppin’ By The Bayou: Flip, Flop & Fly
Various Artists
Ace CD-1529

This is the seventh Boppin’ release in Ace’s laudatory ‘By The Bayou’ series that once more draws the bead on white Gulf Coast rock ‘n’ rollers, either exploring rockabilly in the wake of Elvis or inventing what became known as swamp pop. Deriving mainly from the studios of Louisianians J.D. Miller in Crowley and Eddie Shuler in Lake Charles as well as those of Cosimo Matassa in New Orleans (used by both Sam Montel and Joe Ruffino), Luke Thompson in Hammond, Floyd Soileau in Ville Platte and Floyd Badeaux in Port Arthur, the 28 tracks on this CD “include a host of previously unissued masters, alternate takes and mega-rare 45s and 78s,” as liners author Ian Sadler puts it. He continues: “Of particular note are the previously unissued distinctly different versions of Al Ferrier’s “Blues Stop Knockin” and Johnny Jano’s “Mabel’s Gone,” Jimmy Newman’s very rare “H-Bomb Shuffle” and the stunning title track, a previously unheard version of “Flip, Flop & Fly” by Gene Terry, which demonstrates why Gene was so proud of his band, the Downbeats, and why Eddie Shuler praised him as one of the best artists he ever had on his roster” Other picks include Doug “Louisiana Man” Kershaw’s lively “Kary On Boogie,” The Tune Tones’ ragged-but-right take-off on Little Richard’s classic “Tutti Fritti,” Bob Henderson’s nifty novelty “Jail Break” and swamp-popper T.K. Hulins’ energetic “Little Boy.” Like Kershaw and Terry, Hulin is still active locally. To quote Mr. Sadler once more: “Grab a glass of something strong, crank up the hi-fi, slip on this CD and get to boppin’.”—Gary von Tersch

Diane Durrett & Soul Suga
Blooming Tunes Music 2018

Based in Atlanta, Georgia, singer Diane Durrett and her octet of musical colleagues played a date at Eddie’s Attic in Decatur, “a small artist-friendly town within the metro Atlanta area - a cultural blend of Berkeley and Mayberry,” according to the venue’s website. That unusual blend of sophistication and unpretentiousness apparently suited the crowd, who sound exuberant.
We are treated on the CD to over an hour of the show…which is somewhat misleading, since the gig seemingly was recorded in its entirety, including multiple brief to two minute verbal digressions featuring song introductions, banter with the audience, and storytelling about Durrett’s grandmother and a dog. Don’t fear, though; there is plenty of music.
Durrett has a potent voice with good range, and she’s able to handle blues, ballads, rock, soul, and country tunes, all of which are exemplified in the set, with aplomb. In addition to the expected core of cooperating guitarist, drummer, bassist, and keyboard player, her delivery is augmented by Wes Funderburke on trombone, Kerren Berz on violin, and backing vocalists Deborah Reese and Adam McKnight. The latter duo especially shines on such tracks as “It Is What It Is”; that number allows Durrett to let loose some of the country twang inherent in all her vocals. Another strong track is “Love Has a Right to Be Wrong,” a mid-tempo rocker showcasing Yoel B’nai Yehuda on organ. “Woohoo,” at nearly eight minutes the set’s longest number, has Yehuda on piano and a scorching guitar solo, and “Sassy Larue” introduces a New Orleans jazzy flavor.
Toward the end of the set Durrett lets loose her sentimentality sensibility, with varying results. Particularly questionable is her take on the Gershwin classic “Summertime” from the musical “Porgy and Bess”; the listener will need to decide if Diane’s rendition is moving or simply histrionic.
Liner notes are sparse; there are no song credits, and the perpetrator of lead guitar solos (Durrett or Markham White?) is not cited. I also thought that I heard a saxophone; where did that come from?
Nonetheless, a good time was had by all at Eddie’s Attic, and the listener to “Live” can enjoy along with that audience.—Steve Daniels

Music City Blues & Rhythm
Various Artists
Ace CD CDTOP-1510

Music City references the legendary San Francisco Bay Area’s Berkeley-based record label, headed by the somewhat reclusive Ray Dobard, that issued its first 78 rpm-er in 1953 with the cheeky jump blues “Your Money Ain’t Long Enough” by enterprising West Coast bandleader Que Martin (with the mother of funk, bassist Larry Graham, on the accusatory vocal) on a bright yellow Delcro label. That initial venture didn’t last long and not long afterwards the speculative Dobard began noticing the “ever-increasing hordes of teenage consumers,” as co-compiler Alec Palao puts it, “searching for vocal-group oriented discs.” Dobard, with his subsequent Music City label scored from the git-go with the local Four Deuces’ clever doo-wop drinking song “W-P-L-J” and quite a few others in an identical vein. Along the way, however, Dobard did record (but mostly not issue) a fair amount of blues for every type of devotee—from the back porch and juke joint to the nightclub and cocktail lounge. This 28 track collection, with historical liners by Lee Hildebrand, not only proffers great efforts from the likes of Little Willie Littlefield (who was living in San Jose at the time), Roy Hawkins (billed as Mr. Undertaker on the flip-side of “W-P-L-J” with his eerie death dirge “Here Lies My Love”) and Jimmy (Mr. “T-99”) Nelson but fine numbers by a host of others. A few favorites encompass Sidney Grande’s equally raw cover of one of 1953’s biggest blues hits “Tin Pan Alley” (“the roughest place in town, where they start cuttin’ and shootin’ soon as the sun goes down”); an inspired cover of Jimmy McCracklin’s “You’re The One” by Gene Lees & The Blues Rockers that, some say, even features McCracklin on piano! And the downhome blues sound (complete with harmonica) of the Richmond Boys’ reflective tale, “You Gotta Be Mighty Careful.” Further tasty cuts abound by the likes of Chick Morris, Gloria Jean Pitts, Pee Wee Parham, Al Smith, Jasper Evans and others. Check this one out if you want an idea of what the Bay Area blues scene sounded like in the jumping 1950’s. Five Stars.—Gary von Tersch

Ron Spencer Band
Into the Blue
Real Gone Records 2018

Out of central New York state, guitarist Ron Spencer has been rocking the blues for almost three decades, since 2009 with a trio of proficient bandmates: Bob Purdy on bass, Ross Moe on drums, and vocalist Mark Gibson. This rollicking set of eight original tracks and two covers adds nicely to the band’s oeuvre.
The opening rocker, “Closer to the Bone,” is a zesty number enriched by the spirited piano of guest Dan Eaton, whose contributions continue with “(I’m Doin’) Ah-ight,” the longest track of the album, a mid-tempo shuffle allowing Spencer to display his unpretentious but skilled guitar chops on a long mid-tune solo. The clear mix provides ample opportunity to appreciate Purdy’s pithy bass renderings on “Addicted to You,” and then the band hits maximum synergy on the cover of a Moon Martin tune, “Cadillac Walk”; it had my feet tapping and fingers snapping.
The ensuing cover, “Blind, Crippled & Crazy,” visits R&B territory, with Mark Gibson delivering one of his best vocals, aided by the backing trio of Sharon Allen, Donna Colton, and Jeff Moleski, Eaton switching from piano to organ and Spencer lending a lyrical solo. On the next cut, “So Wrong,” organ is handled by guest Mike Davis; it’s another shuffle with lilting swing and with amusing lyrics. “It’s Time” sports very adept interplay between Eaton’s organ stylings and Spencer’s single note lead. Mark Gibson flaunts his R&B vocal credentials again on “Callin’ to Me,” and I think that I hear some saxophone, as well, courtesy of Eaton.
The band is far from spent, as evidenced by “Fine, Fine Woman,” a take-no-prisoners rocker wherein Eaton really lets loose on the 88s. The set ends in great form with “Cold Outside,” the lament of a spurned lover relegated to a sub-freezing exile.
“Into the Blue” is a set of quality songs by a tight band, without discernible weakness, that excels at rockers and shuffles and that deserves widespread exposure and praise.—Steve Daniels

RJ Mischo
I Hope You’re Satisfied
Bluebeat Music 2018

For his first new release in three years, harmonica maven Mischo dug into his vault to present fourteen studio outtakes from past recording sessions, ranging from 2008 to 2014. The only (warranted!) conclusion to be drawn: those tracks which survived the sessions must have been pretty damn good (they were), because these “rejects” comprise a set well worth enjoying…repeatedly.
Minnesota native Mischo, now based in Ventura, CA, has a resume of over a dozen albums of his own, and myriad appearances on releases of others, including James Cotton, John Mayall, Jimmie Vaughan, Candye Kane, Sonny Rhodes, and Mark Hummel. Among his collaborators here are a slew of top-notch rhythm players and a roster of excellent guitarists, among them Kid Andersen, Johnny Moeller, Rusty Zinn, Jon Lawton, and Bob Welsh. In addition, a dozen of the tracks are Mischo’s own compositions.
The listener will be treated to a variety of tempos, and RJ’s vocals are consistently appealing. Not surprisingly, his harp playing is the focus. It is readily appreciated on “Country Shakedown,” a spare number featuring only RJ on harmonica, Welsh on acoustic guitar, and Lawton on resonator steel. Mischo’s harmonica chops are equally well deployed, with echo reverb, in the four minute Chicago blues instrumental “Kalamazoo Kicker,” and in the brief solo outing “J.F. Harmonica Boogie.” (Those lucky enough to have seen Mischo perform live know that he always offers at least one unaccompanied harmonica number, and it never fails to maintain interest and garner accolades.)
Another standout is “You Can’t Hurt Me Anymore,” penned by Wisconsin harmonicat Jim Liban; it’s an all-out rocker driven by Richard Medek on drums. The other cover, the humorous “Might Be Your Woman,” is one of the longest tracks of the fifty minute set and is delivered as an irresistible dance number propelled by West Coast first-call drummer June Core and Andersen. Core, Andersen, bassist Kedar Roy, and pianist Sid Morris also team on the slow, pithy instrumental “Sneezers Blues.”
Those unfamiliar with RJ Mischo’s preeminence as a contemporary harmonica player will undoubtedly want to seek out his other releases; those who already know him won’t be surprised by this searing set.—Steve Daniels

Matt “The Rattlesnake” Lesch
Furious Strike

It seems the latest craze on the blues scene is the young guitar prodigy. Every blues town has one and not to denigrate them, most are fabulous player for any age. When I received Matt “The Rattlesnake” Lesch’s debut CD, “Furious Strike,” I noticed he was twenty-one, from St Louis, MO and on first listen saw he plays a few songs that Stevie Ray had covered. But that second listen was a real wake up call, the best songs were his originals and he was really saying something. The band is Matt Lesch on guitar and vocals, another young player, Luke Sailor, keyboards and what could be a family rhythm section of Tecora Morgan, bass and Riley Morgan, drums; no one is taking this as just a job - they’re really working it. This Snake is getting cred from older players who worked with SRV and Albert King but his ferocity comes from Matt’s own self confidence.
Starting his “Strike” with an easy rolling instrumental, “Shake N Crawl,” that is truly original while in his covers of “Crosscut Saw” and “I’m Going Down” you can hear the fire building, though his voice does betray his age, as “Voodoo Child (Slight Return)” includes some riffs from Jimi’s “Power Of Soul” as well. The remaining originals are where Matt really takes off and hits it hard, his tone and intensity taking a major jump. Matt singing about his first guitar, the decade he’s been “Rattlin’” on it, unleashing a wah wah and just getting started. The “Rattlesnake Shuffle” has a Leslie sound while Luke’s electric piano takes part as a second lead. Matt’s heartfelt pleading vocals come though on “Still Got My Blues,” a tale of lost love with expansive organ fills that the guitar sweeps aside with a confident stroke that builds like “Loan Me A Dime.” Going for a jazzier take on the instrumental “Unpredictable,” the drummer gets a chance to show his chops against fluid guitar while it showcases the keyboards of Sailor and “In The Rain” has a more rock feel. Then cranking up like a rumbling Harley, his voice roughening to a growl, “Ride This Train” starts with a slow churning drive picking up speed on each lead. An eye opener is “We’re Not Gonna Give Up” with haunting harmonies its deep tough lyrics about struggles in these economic times shows off Matt’s voice and his screaming guitar thrusts over the edge into a free fall as it fades out, then they offer an alternative version featuring more keyboards and its interplay with guitar proving this band isn’t “Gonna Give Up.” The real topper is Matt’s cover of B.B. King’s “Three O’Clock Blues” ; just close your eyes, it’s his utter confidence on both his instruments that sell this song.
With the debut CD of Matt “The Rattlesnake” Lesch on “Furious Strike” he joins a small family of real players. —Roger & Margaret White

Kirk Fletcher
Hold On
Elaysia Music

For more than twenty years Kirk Fletcher has been a standout guitarist in west coast blues, from the Mannish Boys to Kim Wilson, his playing has galvanized each session he’s sat in on. He recorded his first solo album, “I’m Here & I’m Gone” for the English JSP label in 1999 and while “Hold On” is the fifth record Kirk has released under his own name the liner notes say, “I feel this is my first real solo record.” Returning to the UK to record this latest CD, Fletcher plays with a very small band of Jonny Henderson on keyboards, who’s known for his work with British guitarist Matt Schofield, and Florida-based drummer Matt Brown backing Kirk’s guitar and vocals. Writing all the songs, producing the record himself and releasing it on his own label, he’s taken the concept of keeping it simple to make this wholly his own.
A swirl of organ and drums open “Two Steps Forward” as Kirk’s sharp guitar punches in, his baritone drawl takes “ten steps back” till the powerful vocal of Mahalia Barnes blasts in, upping the funk as Kirk’s lead guitar maneuvers forward. Kirk’s vocal comes on strong, swooning above the double-tracked lead guitars digging into the groove of “You Need Me.” An upbeat floor filler that belies the title, “Sad Sad Day,” the jangling piano and chugging rhythm guitar driving onward as Kirk declares the harder he tries the more you run away. “The Answer” has a gentle pleading vocal searching to “turn his life around” as his nimble fingers search for that note as it builds throughout the second half of the song climbing higher and digs into each phrase before returning to his opening melody. As plodding drums sets the “Times Ticking” against the sweeping slash of guitar that climb to a Hendrix-like cry, then taking a jazzier swing to this organ trio instrumental “Dupree,” a tribute to one of Kirk’s heroes, guitarist Cornell Dupree, finishing with a funked-out fuzz bass and electric piano groove. Kirk’s bluesy leads set the stage as he calmly sings he’s “Gotta Right” to sing the blues; “seems like he was born to lose” but his forceful guitar bursts back in, determined to get over any loss. A calmness pervades “Hold On,” the gospel-tinged backing vocals of Jade McCrea sweeten Kerk’s tranquil voice and his plea to love one another.
Kirk Fletcher has been a sideman supreme for decades and with “Hold On” he’s stepping out on his own.—Roger & Margaret White

GB Blues Express
Blues Express Records

Blues has truly become a universal language, springing from the Deep South it ventured north to the Big City, crossed over the seas spreading to Europe, Japan and South America. In 2015 the GB Blues Express from Norway made the journey to ground zero to record “Live at the Shack Up Inn Mississippi,” now after four years they’ve released a new CD recorded in their native land simply titled “Southside.” The band’s name and their sound are fully Americanized, the only thing that may give you a hint to their origin is the names of the band members. The GB in their name is for Geir “Milkman” Bertheussen, harmonica and vocals, with their main songwriter Kai “Sugar Kay” Fjeliberg on guitar and vocals, Trond “Boogieman” Hansen on bass and Kare “Lefty” Amundsen on drums. They have some additional help from Morten Larsen, piano, Rune Karisen or Jan Tore Lauritsen, organ, Dave Fields guitar and backing vocals with the Red Hot Horns featuring Magnus Malmedal Dragen, trumpet, Pal Gunnar Fiksdal, trumpet, Runar Flksdal, trombone and Lars Petter Bjerkeset, sax. All the songs are originals but sound as if they could have come straight from the Southside.
Getting right down to business with an instrumental from Sugar’s guitar dusting “Cakewalk” with sweet Southside licks that lead into GB’s “Born On The Southside” the vocals strutting with pride that he’s hooked on the blues. Stepping up the intensity GB declares he’s the “King Of My Castle,” his harp on equal status with the deep guttural vocals then horns roll in over swelling organ riffs for the “Steppin’ Stone” that’s dominated by strong guitar. Easing to a stroll on “How We Roll,” the gentle vocal calmly croons as Sugar’s sweet guitar punctuates each line. An Elmore-like slide against a “Mojo Working” rhythm hit “Hard Times” as a warbling harp adds fills after each verse and the slide takes off again. A stinging shuffle that has the harp sashaying around the beat and between the lyric of “Supergirl” then a steady rolling wave of rhythm and the rumbling growl of vocal as the “World Is Shakin” and sheets of guitar come tumbling down. Sugar’s guitar has a shimmering Peter Green-like quality on “Lone Wolf,” the strong yet subdued vocals are “keeping to himself” as the harp howls and growls.
Though the GB Blues Express are from Norway their newest release, “Southside,” is on a fast track aimed right at the blues. —Roger & Margaret White

Dee Miller Band
Leopard Print Dress

Ms Dee Miller has been a long time Midwestern Diva running her own band for fifteen years earning the title “The Duchess of the Blues” in her hometown of St Paul, Minnesota and will be representing Minnesota at the 2019 International Blues Challenge in Memphis. Dee Miller’s band features Craig Clark on guitar, lead and backing vocals, Eric Meyer bass, vocals, Jesse Mueller keyboards and Mike DuBois drums. For a petite woman Dee has a powerful, full-bodied voice and her latest release “Leopard Print Dress” is a real knockout.
The band kicks off the party with an original, getting the house rocking, you can almost hear the glasses clink as the piano swings and Dee growls, lets get “Hot And Sweaty.” Craig Clark starts off the lead vocal intro on “Leopard Print Dress” written by Miller and former bandmate Jimi ‘Primetime’ Smith then lets Dee work her skirt as Paul Mayasich lets fly a slide solo. Funky keys and wah wah guitar churn through Bekka Bramlett’s “Strongest Weakness” as Dee comes on full force overpowering this funky bunch. Then Mueller gets a chance to strut his boogie woogie piano chops as Dee jumps on Kelly Jean Hunt’s “Back In The Saddle,” taking charge with a full horn section to boot. Then easing back, the dueling keys of John Pinekaers’ piano and Toby Marshall’s organ, it’s Dee’s deep intense vocals that “Take It To The Limit,” building a gospel intensity so soulful it took a while to realize this was an Eagles song. The dueling keys continue as Dee gets lowdown, pulling the pathos from Johnny Taylor’s “Last Two Dollars” as Clark’s subtle background vocals and powerful guitar solos are a big payoff. Ms Miller truly makes “I Sing The Blues” her own as Steve ‘Boom Boom’ Vonderherr weaves a lonesome harp around her vocals and Clark’s guitar gives a rolling rhythm and stabs of punctuation. Drifting to a gentle sway, Dee croons over Marshall’s light organ and Boom Boom’s harp as the cymbals dance around the rhythm and soulful backing vocals chime in like a horn section with Dylan Salfer playing some wonderful slide guitar on Derek Trucks’ “Midnight In Harlem.” Craig Clark steps to the front on vocals for Albert Collins “Black Cat Bone” as John Pinekaers sprinkles some juju on piano and Clark lays down some heavy mojo on his solo, driving his vocals to the edge. Then Craig throws down a heavy riff as Miller moans and cries that her man has been “Steppin’” out as the piano plunks out a protest and the guitar gives a thunderous reply till Dee steps in to set things straight.
The Dee Miller Band’s latest CD, “Leopard Print Dress,” ain’t just a frilly frock, these blues are the real thing. —Roger & Margaret White

Gaetano Letizia & The Underworld Blues Rock Band
Beatles Blues Blast

Born in Cleveland in 1951 and inspired by the likes of B.B. King, Muddy Waters and Albert King, Letizia was performing as a teenager—an early stage appearance had him sitting in for the James Gang’s Joe Walsh—and he’s been at it ever since. As Letizia explains in his brief liners: “Yo Beatles fans, in case you didn’t know it, the fab four were originally a blues band as were so many of the famous British invasion bands. Well, we decided to take them back where they came from and make their magical music bluesy again.” With his partners in crime, drummer Mike D’Elia and bassist Lenny Gray, Letizia proffers a rowdy romp through through 17 classic tunes from the Beatles catalog, quite cleverly arranged and re-framed as a lo-fi funky, rocking blues jam session. Favorite numbers include an in-the groove version of Abbey Road’s “Come Together,” the novelty song with a great riff “Birthday,” a swamp blues-accented “Do It In The Road” along with “Yesterday”—re-imagined as a cushiony blues rhumba. A Latin-suffused “And I Love Her” reflects a 1970s Santana sound while “Can’t Buy Me Love” recalls the exuberantly gritty Chicago blues and not to overlook their recall of “She Came In Through The Bathroom Window” that recalls Joe Cocker’s impassioned version. Also noted are crafty revisions of a couple of George Harrison gems—“Taxman” benefits from a Texas shuffle treatment while “My Guitar Gently Weeps” glidingly shifts between a samba and a power ballad. That rare concept project that works Two thumbs up!—Gary von Tersch

Play Pretty Blues:
A Novel of the Life of Robert Johnson
by Snowden Wright
212 pages, paperback
Engine Books, 2013

Since the widespread release of his limited catalogue by Columbia Records in the early 1960s, Robert Johnson has carried the title of King of the Delta Blues. (There are those who disagree; many claim that the mantle should rest on the shoulders of Johnson’s predecessor Charley Patton.) Ironically, less is known about Johnson’s personal and creative life than is documented about most of his contemporaries. Who was Robert Johnson? What was his life really like? Where did he get his inspiration? His prowess on guitar? Are there really only two surviving photos of him, and are they authentic? Where did the legend arise that he made an infamous pact with Satan himself to master the blues? When and where did Johnson die, and how?
The relentless and exhaustive searching of musicologists and historians has failed to provide definitive answers, and it is unlikely that they will ever emerge. We know that he was born in 1911; we know that he died in 1938; we know that the sparse twenty-nine songs that he recorded will maintain his exalted legacy. We know little more.
While acknowledging the invaluable non-fiction contributions of several writer researchers - books by Peter Guralnick, Barry Lee Pearson and Bill McCulloch, and Elijah Wald are cited - Snowden Wright has chosen a different path. Play Pretty Blues is a fictional re-working of Johnson’s life, situating it in the impoverished, oppressed, and yet vibrant milieu from which he arose. Amusingly and often poignantly, the story is told in the individual - and sometimes collective - voice of his six abandoned common law “wives,” all of whom allegedly loved him and cherish his legacy decades after his disappearance and likely demise.
Thus we learn about Robert’s brief and ill-fated one legal marriage, his tutelage under the guidance of guitar wizard and con man Ike Zinnerman and his roving exploits with his younger musical soulmate Robert Shines. (Shines [of course], Zinnerman, and such record industry figures as Ernie Oertle and H.C. Speir are real historical figures, but their intersections with Johnson are imagined.) We see Robert’s beguiling combination of humility and lack of self-control. We are privy to travels in railroad boxcars, drunken sprees, instances of both grace and greed. We observe him performing blindfolded before wealthy white partygoers, and then being assaulted by the man who recruited him for the party: “risen knuckles cracked hard against Robert’s temple with shocking clout…before he went unconscious. Robert came back to his senses in a victory garden that had been overrun since the war. Artificial stars bloomed above his dizzy head. The first thing he did was check for the $200 in the pocket of his coat. The next thing he did was look for his guitar.”
Wright has obviously done impressive research. He intersperses the few uncontested facts of Johnson’s life with a delineation of the sights, sounds, products, and practices of life in the Mississippi delta during the 1920s and 1930s, and his prose, while occasionally challenging in its use of vernacular language and abstruse allusions, often reaches the realm of the poetic. “Above their heads in the dark of cypress canopy, a spider hanging on its line drifted in rhythm to the gummy breeze, a pendulum with the world for a clock. The spider clamored back up to its web in the tree, stopping time in mid-tick of a hot summer afternoon….Along the current of the river, invisible water bugs skimmed its calm surface, their wake the only way to know they were there.”
Even though we will never know in detail the particulars of Robert Johnson’s life, we now have a plausible account of what it could have been like…and a worthy novel to boot.—Steve Daniels


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