Blues Reviews Dec 2020/Jan 2021

Bobby Rush
Rawer Than Raw
Deep Rush Records 2020

Is there something magical that confers longevity with vitality to so many bluesmen? How many of them visited the famed crossroads and made an old-age pact with the devil? Pinetop Perkins, Honeyboy Edwards, and Robert Lockwood Jr. all lived into their 90s. Still active performers include 92 year-old Jimmy Johnson, John Mayall at 86, Buddy Guy at 84, Taj Mahal at 78, and youngster Jimmy Burns at 77. Not to be upstaged is Bobby Rush, 86 years old and still releasing quality albums, even though he has nothing left to prove. A member of the Blues Hall of Fame and a Grammy winner, winner of a dozen Blues Music Awards and many more nominations, Rush has played with luminaries ranging from Elmore James, Freddie King, and Luther Allison in the 1950sand 1960s to Alvin Youngblood Hart and Dr. John more recently.
Rush is a man of many talents. He writes songs which are idiosyncratic and witty, plays both guitar and harmonica skillfully, sings compellingly, and for decades has fronted a risqué, soulful, and danceable revue popular on the touring “Chitlin Circuit.” This, his umpteenth release, harks back to 2006’s “Raw”: the sole performer is Rush, plying guitar, harp, and voice as he presents eleven tunes in homage to his Deep South roots.
The five original compositions begin with “Down in Mississippi,” an ode to his adopted home state. (He was born in Louisiana but lives in Jackson, MS.) The remaining originals adhere to Rush’s usual concerns: travail, rejection, and especially sex. “Let’s Make Love Again” boldly announces the singer’s amorous desire, and “Let Me in Your House” reprises the theme with humorous lyrics: “If I can’t sleep in your bed/Let me sleep down here on your floor/If I walk in my sleep/ You’re the only one will ever know.” “Garbage Man” continues with sly innuendos; it’s basically a cover of Eddie Boyd’s classic “Five Long Years” with modified lyrics.
Although it’s a cover of a Willie Dixon song, “Shake It for Me” also deals with sex; those who have seen one of Rush’s live revues, replete with well-endowed dancers twerking by his side, will be unsurprised by the lyrics “Well you went away baby/Got back a little too late/ I’m gonna find me another woman/Shake like jelly on the plate.” There are well chosen covers of Robert Johnson’s “Dust My Broom,” Skip James’s “Hard Times,” Howlin’ Wolf’s “Smokestack Lighting,” and Sonny Boy Williamson’s “Don’t Start Me Talkin’.” To his credit, Rush makes them his own, hewing to a twelve-bar blues structure but varying tempos and lyrics from the originals, morphing them from electric band blues to back porch country versions. His minimalist approach, with funky harmonica and acoustic guitar and his insinuating, raspy vocals, is a delight.
Judging by this release, Bobby Rush is far from being done.—Steve Daniels

Elvin Bishop & Charlie Musselwhite
100 Years of Blues
Alligator 2020

“No twitters, no tweets” go the lyrics of one of the nine original songs that blues veterans – and legends – Elvin Bishop and Charlie Musselwhite have crafted for their new Alligator release. It’s hard to believe that these two septuagenarians are virgin album collaborators, but the wait was worth it. They have produced a set of a dozen tracks replete with expert musicianship and a vibe emanating mutual affection and musical affinity.
The tracks comprise traditional twelve bar blues without frills. There are no drums, demonstrating, as did John Mayall in his classic 1969 album “The Turning Point,” that solid rhythm can be delivered without them. On four tracks bass guitar is played impeccably by ubiquitous producer Kid Andersen, and Bob Welsh girds the proceedings on all tracks with alternating piano and second guitar. Kudos to Welsh, a renowned West Coast session player who is superb throughout.
Several of the songs allude to Bishop and Musselwhite’s origins in Oklahoma and Tennessee respectively, to their shared musical maturation in Chicago in the early 1960s, and to their career longevity. “Birds of a Feather,” the opening cut, is upbeat and emphasizes Elvin and Charlie’s ties to each other and the blues community, Bishop handling the vocal. Charlie assumes the vocal seat next on a pithy cover of Roosevelt Sykes’ “West Helena Blues,” and then it’s back to Bishop for the topically relevant “What the Hell?” The sly and sardonic lyrics are characteristic of the witty writing still to come. Even the covers provide laughs: on “Help Me,” made famous by Sonny Boy Williamson II, Charlie lasciviously intones the great double entendre line “I don’t feel like sleepin’/I just feel like lyin’ down.”
As I made notes while listening to the album, I put a star next to each track that I particularly liked. I ended up with twelve stars! Bishop’s guitar leads are stinging or plaintive, as required by the song. His singing is more accurately characterized as talking blues, but on the cover of Leroy Carr’s “Midnight Hour Blues” he shows that he can also hit the more challenging mark vocally on a slow, dirge-like blues, while also providing a brief but moving guitar solo. Musselwhite’s drawl-inflected singing is consistently appealing; he always sounds laid back, never in a hurry, but also “right there.” The harmonica virtuosity that has won him innumerable awards is sterling; his harp tone is deep and mellow, he hits the high registers with aplomb and slides back effortlessly to low notes, and his destination is never clear but he always gets there.
OK, I will cite one track which is my favorite: “Old School,” written by Bishop and Willie Jordan, which appeared previously on Bishop’s 2014 album “Can’t Even Do Wrong Right.” It’s a danceable shuffle utilizing the talents of all four musicians and inducing multiple chuckles, including the lyric “Don’t send me no email/Send me a female.” Bolstered by Andersen on bass, it features several bars of Bishop and Welsh on guitars and Charlie on harp, all playing in sync - that sent shivers of delight up my spine. It even has some John Lee Hooker guitar licks near the end.
This is blues at its best. Let’s hope that Bishop and Musselwhite remain on top of their game for many more years.—Steve Daniels

Eric Johanson
Below Sea Level
Whiskey Bayou Records

After the Louisiana Cajun and Mississippi Hill Country Blues of his 2017 album “Burn It Down,” produced by Tab Benoit, Eric Johanson - guitarist, songwriter and vocalist - moved to New Orleans and Nola Blue Records and to the production of Luther Dickinson to record his 2020 album “Below Sea Level.” With Cody Dickinson on drums and Terence Grayson of the Victor Wainwright Band on bass guitar, the band recorded live in the studio - and the tracks jump from the rails like a runaway train. The producer, Luther Dickinson, lead guitarist and vocalist for the North Mississippi Allstars, simply had to get out of the way and make sure there was fresh coal in the engine. There’s very little overdubbing, the guitar sounds are unaffected by modern technology and they are played by Johanson with undeniable force and uninhibited strength. Recorded at Zebra Ranch Studios where Jim Dickinson, Luther’s father, has produced music by (among others) the North Mississippi Allstars and David Kimbrough. Dickinson has been known to refer to this kind of original music as “Memphis Underground.” For those yearning for more original Americana and Blues Rock, this album sits right in there with modern production values of EQ, rum? sound and reverb, but with a vintage feel of the early days of Cream and ZZ Top.
The album opens with “Buried Above Ground” and Johanson declaring “don’t tell me about the devil man, I live below sea level” driven by a more exotic (imagine Bo Diddley’s drummer chewing gravel while he played) drum figure than we expected. The song “Hammer on the Stone” recalls the classic “Hear My Train a’Comin’” and breaks free of it once the vocals kick in. “Never Tomorrow” takes off with a rock riff and lots of vocal stops that could have been convincingly demoed by early Led Zeppelin (although at a much slower tempo). My guess is that “Open Hearted Woman” is the sharpest arrow in Johanson’s quiver. Here, angst-ridden lyrics, played over a mid-tempo blues, are both relaxed and menacing. “River of Oblivion” shows off some slide guitar lurking under the vocals that will keep die-hard blues fans on the edge of their seats. The 12 original tracks on this sophomore release prove well worth the wait, after the previous album. I’m looking forward to hearing more from this unique musician. To find out more about Eric and the album “Below Sea Level” visit— Conrad Warre

Peter Veteska & Blues Train
Grass Ain’t Greener On The Other Side

Peter Veteska is a NYC area-based guitar slinger/vocalist/songwriter and is no stranger to this magazine or the East Coast blues and festival scene. Grass Ain’t Greener On The Other Side is his fifth release, the previous four under the band name Peter V Blues Train. He recently formed Peter Veteska & Blues Train with the only holdover from the original band being drummer Alex D’Agnese. Veteska felt he was straying from the pureness of the blues on his previous albums, “injecting some jazz and funk” in his own words. Grass Ain’t Always Greener On The Other Side demonstrates a conscience effort to stay true to the blues. And a hard rockin’ blues is what we get here.
“Am I Wrong Pretty Baby” opens with some boisterous blues harp from Mikey Junior. A fine solo by Veteska is followed by some serious B3 organ soloing by special guest Jeff Levine, whose sublime playing sparkles throughout the recording, raising the level of the entire band. “Baby You Got What It Takes” has a Texas shuffle feel to it as Jen Barnes duets with Veteska, adding a nice element to the mix. Most of the songs are written by Veteska but the covers “Heartbreaker” and “You Don’t Love Me” are definite highlights. Ray Charles’ “Heartbreaker” features a second guitar by Roger Girke who trades verses with Veteska and the souped-up Allman Brothers Fillmore East vehicle “You Don’t Love Me” is a gas. Blues Train member Coo Moe Jhee is solid on the bass throughout the album, holding down the low end with precision and drive. Longtime Veteska associate Joeseph DeMaio recorded and mixed this great sounding collection, with Veteska producing and arranging, at Shore Fire Recording Studio in Long Branch, NJ. The title track closes the set, featuring a soaring wah wah solo by the leader and more B3 fireworks from Levine. Peter Veteska’s vocals are always powerful and heartfelt. His Stratocaster is always tough, mirroring his vocals, avoiding clichés and arriving at some nice unexpected turns of phrase. A solid effort from beginning to end. —Bob Monteleone

Cathy Grier + the Troublemakers
I’m All Burn
CG Music Works

Singer/guitarist/songwriter Cathy Grier has worn many hats during her lifetime: producer, filmmaker, social activist and New York City busker (she once earned the moniker NYC Subway Girl). The Connecticut native has played around the globe. Among her many adventures, she toured Germany with the French group Parallel Vif and co-wrote “Misery” for the artist Indra, which became a #1 French dance hit. She settled in the beautiful Sturgeon Bay area of Wisconsin in 2016, after residing in NYC for the previous twenty years, where she played (as a member of the group Troia/Grier) at such legendary venues as Folk City, the Lone Star Café and the Bitter End. She has found the Sturgeon Bay/Door County very welcoming to her talents, performing at festivals and winning many awards and forming her band the Troublemakers in 2017.
I’m All Burn basically encompasses her time in Wisconsin, which features fifteen originals and one cover, Bobbie Gentry’s classic “Ode to Billy Joe.” The album was recorded and co-produced (with Grier) by Steve Hamilton at Milwaukee’s Makin’ Sausage Music. Four songs were written in collaboration at Sturgeon Bay’s Holiday Music Motel during the annual Love On Holiday songwriting week. A total of twenty (!) musicians/singers appear on I’m All Burn, but the album is a focused affair. Troublemaker band members (Tony Menzer: bass, Jamey Clark: drums, Jim Ohlschmidt: guitar and Larry Byrne: keyboards) play on almost all the tracks. “Honorary Troublemaker” Greg Koch makes some notable contributions on slide and lead guitar. A 3-piece horn section led by saxophonist Andrew Spadafora spice up five of the songs with Grier’s tasty arrangements. Most songs feature male and female background vocals which lend a gospel feel to the songs. Grier’s guitar solos pop up throughout the recording, always melodic and understated. Her voice is mostly laid back, never overpowering the songs or showboating, but always pleasant and clear, reminding this reviewer at first of Carole King but upon further listening hears a strong Bonnie Raitt influence, which is never a bad thing. The material on I’m All Burn varies from some slow blues shuffles like “Get Me Away” and “Backyard Blues” to mostly soulful ‘70s mid-tempo grooves. No modern devices like synthesizers, drum loops and samples are present anywhere, making the entire project sound timeless and organic. I’m All Burn is a generous but not over-weighted offering of solid songwriting and well-played arrangements featuring the considerable talents of Cathy Grier and her cast of some of Wisconsin’s finest musicians. A solid listen! – Bob Monteleone

Nora Jean Wallace
Blues Woman
Severn CD

Passionate blues singer and prolific songwriter Elnora Jean Wallace was born in 1956 in Greenwood, Leflore County, Mississippi to a musical family, the seventh of sixteen children of a blues singing, sharecroppingfather and whose grandmother ran a juke house. Relocating to Chicago at age nineteen, she eventually joined Jimmy Dawkins’ band and released her first single “Untrue Lover” on Dawkins’ own Leric label. The powerhouse vocalist also toured and recorded with Dawkins, released her first solo CD, Nora Jean Bruso Sings The Blues, on Red Hurricane Records, and performed, in “show-stopping” fashion, with Dawkins at the 1989 Chicago Blues Festival. 2004 saw the release of her BMA-nominated and critically lauded CD, Going Back To Mississippi, as well as her leaving the scene to take care of her ill mother. This new album, 16 years on, was produced by Severn head honcho, David Earl (who also plays guitar on four tracks) and showcases the label’s A-list team of musicians including guitarist Johnny Moeller, bassist Steve Gomes, organist Kevin Anker, harmonica ace Steve Guyger, keyboardist/songwriter Stanley Banks and drummer Robb Stupka with special guest Kim Wilson playing some tonally sharp harp on “Rag And Bucket,” a Banks composition. Picks include the Koko Taylor-INSPIRED title track “I’m A Blues Woman,” an inviting “Dance With Me,” an easy rocking cover of Syl Johnson’s classic “I Can’t Stop,” the reflective “Victim” and a testifying “Look Over Yonder.” Welcome back Nora!
Gary von Tersch

Billy J
Rise Above

Rise Above is singer/guitarist/songwriter Billy J’s debut CD but has the confidence of the longtime musician Billy is, who as a young man in South Jersey opened up for such rock luminaries as Bruce Springsteen and Cinderella and eventually settled into the vast Florida music scene as an engaging performer. Rise Above was recorded mostly live in the studio with an all-star band. Two great rhythm sections perform on the album: the late, great drummer Yonrico Scott with bassist Todd Smallie (both longtime Derek Trucks Band alumni); and Scott teamed with former Royal Southern Brotherhood rhythm partner Charlie Wooton, whose excellent solo album Blue Basso was reviewed on these pages a year ago. Also, Jeremy Baum handles keyboards and J. Robert appears on violin and steel drums along with Stephen “Buzzy” Krist on percussion. Billy J handles all guitar duties with taste and an attitude when called for. The album was produced and mixed at Broccoli Rabe Studios in Fairfield, NJ by Big City Rhythm & Blues magazine contributor Dave Fields.
Rise Above is a mix of mostly hard-hitting rockers, plus a couple of acoustic-based power ballads (the title track and “She”), a slow blues (“New Car,” which has some Jimmy Page-influenced solo lines) and even a reggae tune (“Push Push”)! The rocker “She’s Mine” starts things off with a funky guitar intro, a catchy chorus hook with snarling leads throughout. “Sweaty Melons” also has a funk rock groove with some potent B3 organ stabs. The one cover on the album, Harry Chapin’s “Cat’s in the Cradle,” is a clever and rocking re-working of the ‘70s classic. “Push Push” showcases the band’s versatility and features a catchy guitar hook. “My Baby’s Blu” is a highlight, with a hard rock shuffle supporting a great rhythm guitar hook. All the tracks contain Billy J guitar solos, but the songs come first. All the tunes are well written; the solos exist to support the song, not the other way around. Billy J’s guitar style is steeped in 1970’s rock. No obvious cops of any particular guitar heroes although he favors a fast vibrato that reminds this reviewer of Jorma Kaukonen in his acid rock phase of electric Hot Tuna. In conclusion, this is a fine sounding collection of rocking tunes that should satisfy both the classic rock and casual blues fan alike. – Bob Monteleone

Dirty Work Going On
Kent & Modern Blues Into The ‘60s
Volumes 1
If I Have To Wreck L.A.
Volume 2
Ace Records

These two volumes, combined, feature fifty tracks from the deep vaults of the West Coast-based Bihari Brothers’ Modern and Kent record labels that had a slew of hits by the likes of B.B. King, John Lee Hooker and Elmore James among many others in the 1950s. “But the blues didn’t stop at the end of the 50s and, as soul music ruled the charts, the grittier end of black music was well represented by the nine artists, old and new, on the Volume One compilation—great guitar playing to the fore,” as liners author Dick Shurman puts it. The nine are Texas bluesman/pimp Fillmore Slim (check out “Fast Gun Annie”); quintessential 60s blues artist King Solomon; itinerant, B.B. King-influenced Little Joe Blue; the legendary T-Bone Walker; another B.B. King disciple Larry Davis; Lowell Fulson-influenced “Flash” Terry; bulldozing tenor man “Big Jay” McNeely; Little Johnny Taylor disciple, big-voiced Stacy Johnson and, to bring it all back home, one track by B.B. himself, the fountainhead of this CD—“Down Now” concerning his IRS troubles, shades of Willie Nelson. Volume Two keeps the focus on Texas but draws a bead, strictly and delightfully, on the downhome, house-party, gutbucket blues approach—with the harmonica replacing the horns and the angular shadows of Lightnin’ Hopkins and John Lee Williamson looming large and is centered around eleven sturdy sides from Willie Headen and the mysterious Willie “Stinky Butt” Garland—favorites from the pair include the title tune, an eyes-wide, searing, guitar-driven slow blues travelogue of the Los Angeles area along with a rousing, Elmore James-styled shuffle, “Hey Baby,” and “Black Widow Spider,” with Garland’s throwback harp style to the fore. Five other artists add to the fun—force of nature, Big Mama Thornton, with the slow wailer “Before Day,” Lowell Fulson with his utterly laid-back, slicing guitar-infused “Blues Pain,” South Central performer and club owner Smokey Wilson, Lightnin’ Hopkins protege Luke “Long Gone” Miles and great songwriter Model T Slim with his accelerative classic “Somebody’s Done Hoodooed The Hoodoo Man.” Top shelf stuff, each with nifty booklets.—Gary von Tersch

Vanessa Collier
Heart on the Line
Phenix Fire Records

Vanessa Collier sings, plays alto, tenor, soprano and baritone saxophone, clavinet, organ, guitar and percussion. She writes her own material and has self-produced her album entitled “Heart on the Line” on the Phenix Fire Records label. This is the Berklee graduate’s fourth album release and comes hot on the heels of her winning the 2020 Blues Music Award (BMA) for Instrumentalist of the year - for the second consecutive year. Collier usually plays and tours with some of her Berklee peers. The album features William Gorman on keys, Quinn Carson on trombone, Nick Stevens on drums and shuitar - yes I had to look that up –the ‘shuitar’ is an acoustic guitar converted into a percussion instrument with a variety of sounds ranging from snare to bass, and can be played by hand or with brushes. Also appearing is the phenomenal blues guitarist Laura Chavez, Doug Woolverton on trumpet and C.C. Ellis on bass guitar. The songs cover a wide range of styles, so it’s impossible to nail them down to a narrow musical niche. You have to imagine a band that can play sixties soul convincingly, and then switch to delta blues or gutbucket funk. The album is expertly performed and produced – the songs well-written and cliché-free with a supporting musicianship that is both sensitive and assertive when necessary. The song “I Don’t Want Anything to Change” is a stand-out with an all-too brief gorgeous saxophone solo and reminiscent (in a good way) of some of Bonnie Raitt’s best known ballads. The album opens with the high energy funk of “Superbad” – matched later with a nice take on the Randy Newman classic, “You Can Leave Your Hat On.” Laura Chavez’s guitar standout tracks are “Take a Chance on Me” where she delivers an overdriven growl, later followed by the down-tempo blues ballad titled “Weep and Moan” where she delivers a Ronnie Earl-influenced solo, which is unaffected but for some reverb plangent single-coil guitar soulful ornamentation. Collier plays a mean resonator guitar herself on the third track on the album “Bloodhound.” It’s rumored that Chavez and Collier might record an album of duets sometime in the future.
Originally from Dallas, Texas, Collier started performing when she was only eleven years old and has toured around the world. She’s played with Annie Lennox and Willie Nelson and toured backing Joe Louis Walker in 2012 and 2013. Collier’s band has been off the road since March of 2020 and she has spent the time constructively writing and arranging and producing an album that is both excellent and impossible to categorize. If you’ve never had the chance to witness Collier live, this album, as good as it is, belies the understanding that on stage she takes total command and earns the instant respect of both her audience and her peers – often charging offstage and into the audience leading the band in spontaneous makeshift musical parade through the venue whether it’s a club, theatre or festival. You should catch her and her band live as soon they hit the road.— Conrad Warre

Andy Cohen
Tryin’ To Get Home
Earwig CD

Andy Cohen is a master finger-style guitarist who has been characterized as “a walking, talking folk-blues-roots music encyclopedia.” During the fabled Sixties Folk Revival, he was transfixed by the music of Big Bill Broonzy and the Jim Kweskin Jug Band and, after hearing South Carolina’s legendary Reverend Gary Davis perform as a teenager, decided to dedicate his life to studying, performing and promoting the traditional blues and folk music of the pre-World War II era. At an Andy Cohen concert (and on this new CD) one can count on hearing blues deeply rooted in Mississippi, the Piedmont region, Memphis and Chicago along with some gospel, ragtime and original tunes. Knockout numbers include a great take on Blind Boy Fuller’s hit song “Step It Up And Go,” an ingenious revamp of Mississippi John Hurt’s “Talkin’ Casey” that includes sound effects courtesy of Furry Lewis and Blind Blake, an engrossing version of Bob Dylan’s poetically reflective “Bob Dylan’s Dream,” penetrating versions of a pair of Rev. Davis songs (“Death Don’t Have No Mercy” and “Tryin’ To Get Home”), a jumping recall of Clarence Williams’ oft-covered “I Ain’t Gonna Give You None Of My Jelly Roll” and a bones-accompanied update of Blind Blake’s “West Coast Blues.” And if you’ve got kids, Cohen also has a new children’s CDs available (Small But Mighty: Songs For Growing People) with smile-inducing songs like “Uncle Stinky,” “The Brand New Baby” and “Happy-Go-Lucky.”—Gary von Tersch

A Capella Black Gospel
Look How The World Has Made A Change: 1940-1969
Narro Way CD

As liners author Ray Templeton assuredly reflects: “These days, the idea of music made just by unaccompanied voices can seem quaint and conservative, but in the first half of the twentieth century, vocal group singing was one of the most progressive and inventive of African American arts. In the absence of instruments, its exponents had to work that much harder to stay ahead of the game, to ensure that their own distinctive sound grabbed and held the attention of audiences and record buyers. At its best, a cappella singing is deeply indigenous in character, but it’s not some kind of distinctive folk tradition.” This great-sounding, eighty track 3-C D compilation, courtesy of the preeminent Per Notini, contains several un-reissued recordings by famous groups like the Soul Stirrers, the Pilgrim Travelers, the Fairfield Four, the Famous Blue Jay Singers, the Wings Over Jordan Choir, the Georgia Peach, the Southern Sons and the McNeil Choir. All of which are spectacularly innovative as well as illuminating. Many tracks are devoted to less well-known names but they all, unfailingly, certainly get their messages across. Let me cite a few of my particular favorites— the National Clouds Of Joy (with a frenetic “Does Jesus Care”), the Camp Meeting Choir Of Winston-Salem, N.C. (the minor harmonies on “Lord Search My Heart” are mesmerizing), the L&N Gospel Singers (those big long notes on “Lord, You Been So Good To Me” ensnare the ear), the Sunset Jubilee Singers Of Alameda (whose mellow yet rocking rhythm on “My God Is Real” ends on an unexpectedly delightful final chord), the Original Kings Of Harmony (their slow-burning “I’ve Got A Mother Done Gone On” is an eyes widener) and the Sam Cooke-influenced Heavenly Kings, with their riveting rendition of their testimonial “Every Living Thing.” As Templeton quite accurately opines: “This is the most important post-war quartet reissue anthology in more than thirty years.” He continues: “On the absence of instruments, its exponents had to work that much harder to stay ahead of the game.” The real deal!—Gary von Tersch

Big Harp George
Living in the City
Blues Mountain Records 2020

In the four years since I reviewed his 2016 album “Wash My Horse in Champagne,” San Francisco Bay Area bluesman George Bisharat has been busy. “Uptown Cool,” released in 2018, garnered fond reviews, and his new album will almost certainly pile up the accolades as well. Let me join the admirers.
It helps that Big George has established a close musical rapport with a group of the finest musicians on the West Coast. Among them are producer and keyboard expert Chris Burns, widely acclaimed guitarist Kid Andersen - alternating here on guitar and bass - and drummer June Core, who provides solid and snazzy backbone to the proceedings. Various bass players and supporting singers are equally adept, and on six of the thirteen tracks backing vocals are provided beautifully by the Sons of the Soul Revivers. Special mention should be made of guitarist Charlie Baty. The former leader of Little Charlie and the Nightcats until he abandoned touring a decade ago, Baty collaborated on all three of George’s previous albums. His untimely demise earlier in 2020 after recording here is a loss to the blues community.
Baty was also an accomplished jazz guitarist, meshing well with Big George’s jazz proclivities. This album is actually an amalgam of blues, jazz, and world music, and sports a jaunty pace until the final three, more contemplative pieces. George’s increased interest in world music is manifested in several of the all-original tracks. “Enrique,” for example, has a distinctly Brazilian flavor as it spins the tail of an impoverished, hard-working immigrant. Its socially conscious message appears on several other tunes, notably the last track, “Meet Me at the Fence,” which is “dedicated to…all the young Palestinians yearning for freedom in the Gaza Strip.” The cut is augmented by zither and Arabic percussion. “Enrique,” similarly, benefits from employment of violin and Paraguayan harp, both played hauntingly by Carlos Reyes.
Don’t worry: there is a lot of blues here. Among the inviting shuffles are “Try Nice,” “Don’t Talk,” and “Copayment”; the titles indicate the witty inventiveness of George’s lyrics. “Copayment” hews most closely to a traditional twelve bar electric blues outing, with George milking the high register on the harmonica, Andersen and Burns delivering pithy solos, the horns and the Sons adding plenty of soul.
Throughout the album there are crisp and creative solos by Big Harp, Andersen, Baty, and Burns, but the emphasis is on smooth ensemble expertise rather than individual virtuosity. George’s jazzy harmonica renderings are expert, and as impressive as his singing, which maintains the spotlight; his tenor vocalizing is supple and expressive.
Message to the Blues Music Awards: this will be a nominee for Contemporary Album of the Year.—Steve Daniels

Erin Harpe
Meet Me in the Middle
Vizztone 2020

After the release of several albums with her electric band the Delta Swingers, Erin Harpe has returned to her country blues roots with “Meet Me in the Middle.” Harpe, a skilled fingerpicking guitarist and sultry singer, won the 2019 New England Blues Artist of the Year award, and this outing confirms her stature as a force in the blues world.
Recording in their Massachusetts abode in summer 2020 during the coronavirus pandemic, Harpe and her bass player husband, Jim Countryman, dig into ten tunes comprising a brief but satisfying set. It commences with the Harpe composition “All Night Long,” a straightforward invitation to a love tryst. Succeeding it are two more originals: “Hard Luck Woman,” which easily could have been a 1930s Memphis Minnie song, and the title track, with clever lyrics such as “You say yes, I say no, You say stop, I say go; You’re not right, I’m not wrong, We’re just singin’ that same old song.” It’s probably no coincidence that the song appears in the middle of a divisive political and cultural moment.
Next Harpe and Countryman cover a series of hoary and worthy tunes. Sippie Wallace’s “Women Be Wise” and “I Hate That Train Called the M&O” by Lucille Bogan (AKA Bessie Jackson) are both given fine updated treatments; Harpe even supplements the former with some kazoo renderings. “Rollin’ and Tumblin’,” covered by myriad others ranging from Muddy Waters to Bob Dylan, displays Countryman’s bass and Harpe’s slide meshing seamlessly. A version of “Pick Poor Robin Clean” by the mysterious and sparsely recorded Geeshie Wiley in the late 1920s is then followed by a measured and mellow rendition of the gospel classic “When I Lay My Burden Down.”
The penultimate track finds Harpe plucking and vamping on Memphis Minnie’s “What’s the Matter with the Mill,” and the set ends with another Harpe original, “One Fine Day,” a nice love ballad with overdubbed harmonizing vocal by Harpe. Several other tracks also sport similar delicious backing harmonies, and many benefit by Harpe’s coincident foot percussion.
The album’s clean production allows appreciation of Harpe’s soprano vocals, her guitar prowess, and her intimate musical rapport with Countryman. Erin Harpe deserves to be accorded a spot along with Rory Block and just a few others in the high echelons of acoustic blueswomen.—Steve Daniels

Classic Blues Artwork From The 1920s Calendar
Various Artists
Blues Images

For nearly twenty years, John Tefteller has been committed to bringing blues fans nonpareil replicas of original classic blues advertising artwork, photographs and rare recorded music with his yearly calendars that also include sample song lyrics, brief biographies and birth and death dates of various artists. An enclosed CD features twelve Pre-War classics (one for each month on the calendar) from early blues masters like “Peg Leg” Howell (with his rollicking “Too Tight Blues”), Meade Lux Lewis (with “Honky Tonk Train Blues,” the mother of all piano blues recordings), Blind Lemon Jefferson (with the timely “Pneumonia Blues”), Reverend D.C. Rice and his ardent congregation on the spirited “The Angels Rolled The Stone Away” and the late, great Victoria Spivey with a test pressing of her Halloween treat “Witchcraft Blues.” Bertha Henderson with Blind Blake, Walter Roland, Buddy Moss, Sonny Boy Williamson, Lead Belly, Ramblin’ Thomas and Blind Boy Fuller are also at their best. The second half of the CD is devoted to what many blues fans consider to be the Holy Grail from Memphis’ legendary Sun Records—the long-lost, circa 1950, laid-back yet wondrously primordial, initial blues recording session for Sam Phillips’ label featuring the enigmatic singer/pianist Lost John Hunter and his Blind Bats combo. There were no releases from this session but it remains a significant moment in time as Hunter’s rough and rugged vocals and wildly alert, James Booker-influenced piano pounding, along with the talented teenage guitarist Herman Green, melded masterfully. Highlights would begin with both takes of “Miss Thelma Mae,” where Hunter is singing about (and looking for) his “copper colored brown” that is followed by a couple takes of the decidedly cheerless “You Gotta Heart Of Stone” (sharp guitar work) with room in-between for boogie blues at its best on the lone take of “Lost John’s Pinetop’s Boogie” along with the salaciously pleading “Boogie For Me Baby” (“Lookie here baby, I want you to talk back to me”) ,” two takes of an eventually upbeat “Trouble Everywhere” followed by the warning-shot blues of “Mind Your Own Business” (on two delightful Cecil Gant-influenced takes) only to close with track 23 and the nostalgic “Back To Louisiana.” WHAT! How can they all be highlights you say? All I can reply is to say give it a listen. Big-eared Sam Phillips just warming up!— Gary von Tersch

Val Starr and the Blues Rocket
Lighter Side of the Blues
Self-produced 2020

A singer and guitarist since she was a pre-teen, California native Val Starr has lived in Sacramento, CA, for almost two decades after prior stints in southern CA as a record label executive and radio promoter. In Sacramento she established a streaming radio network and she and her bass-player husband, John Ellis, have organized blues festivals. Ten years ago they formed the Blues Rocket, and “Lighter Side of the Blues” is its fifth album release.
The fifteen tracks, comprising over an hour of blues, showcase the talents of the ensemble of northern CA musicians. In addition to Ellis on bass and Starr on rhythm guitar, foundation is supported on drums by Paul Farman and on keys by accomplished Todd Morgan. Frankie Munz handles harmonica duty, and additional contributions are made by saxophonists Saxophone Zot and Danny Sandoval and percussionist Horacio Socarras. Lead guitarist is Tim Brisson.
The focus, as expected, is on Starr’s vocals. Honed by years of experience, she knows how to deploy her smooth and sultry pipes effectively. All fifteen tracks are allegedly originals, and many sport clever lyrics. (I say allegedly, because “Big Boss Man” is certainly the Jimmy Reed tune, although with altered lyrics.) A good example is “Sactown Heat,” an amusing lament of the seething summer temperatures of CA’s capital city: “Triple digits comin’ today.”
More emotive is “Mister Bassman,” a touching love song from Starr to Ellis, lauding both his marital support and his musicianship.
The set was initially released at the beginning of 2020, but as the coronavirus pandemic has affected and restricted us all, Starr added two pertinent songs. “So Easy Isolating with You,” while never naming Covid-19, is a slow shuffle delineating both the limitations and the consolation of being confined with a significant other, and “Winter of 2020” is explicit: “People crying/Many dying/When will this nightmare end?”
Most of the tracks are mid-tempo; exceptions are “Mister Bassman,” a beautiful slow number, and the final tune, “The Blues Doesn’t Pick or Choose,” an upbeat rocker. Solos are relatively sparse during the set, but the saxophonists sound snazzy when spotlighted, Morgan on piano and organ is consistently tasty, and Brisson delivers multiple brief but inventive single-note solos. “Lighter Side of the Blues” is an enjoyable album illustrating why the band is popular in the northern CA blues scene.— Steve Daniels

Franck Goldwasser
Sweet Little Black Spider
SlimByrd Records 2020

Franck Goldwasser is a name you quite possibly are unfamiliar with, but it’s time to correct that situation. Also known as Paris Slim, a nod to his birth there, Goldwasser has been a U.S. resident since 1983 and has appeared on innumerable albums, including several of his own, as well as establishing himself as a highly valued session musician. He is held in high esteem by fellow musicians. His various residencies in Paris, Portland, OR, Los Angeles, and Oakland led to associations with a mind-boggling list of elite blues artists: Sonny Rhodes, Mark Hummel, Jimmy McCracklin, Charlie Musselwhite, Rick Estrin, James Harman, RJ Mischo, Big Jack Johnson, Sunnyland Slim, Billy Boy Arnold, and Curtis Salgado…and that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
A more than competent singer and songwriter, Goldwasser is most noted for his guitar mastery. He is adept at jazzy guitar flourishes, but this album focuses on his blues chops, with tinges of funk and rock. He is supported by the cream of West Coast colleagues: drummer June Core, and Kid Andersen, who plays bass and co-produced with Franck. The result is thirteen tracks that vary in pacing but never flag in quality. Among them are two versions of the topical “Tyranny Is Rising,” alluding to a certain inhabitant of a high elected U.S. office. Goldwasser’s opinion is declared in the track’s title, but regardless of one’s own political position, the musical merit and conviction of the piece is indisputable.
“Sweet Little Black Spider,” the title track, is probably one of the only songs – and a love song, at that! - ever written to a spider: “I woke up early one morning/I was feeling so awful low/Found myself a brand new friend/Layin’ up in my bathroom window/ Singin’ about my black spider/Sure helps me take my mind off you….”
“Bring Me My Forty-five” and “Struggle in My Home Town” mine blues-funk territory, the latter featuring Goldwasser adeptly playing harmonica, and “She’s Hip” is a straight-on blues rocker. Special mention must be made of one of the three instrumentals, “Blues for Eddie Hazel”: a haunting slow blues, the moving tune is distinguished by Franck’s dazzling guitar effects, including wah-wah pedal and reverb; it’s like a poignant, meditative Ronnie Earl number with technical embellishments. Speaking of echoes of other great guitarists: “Nosluf’s Last Laugh,” another of the instrumentals, recalls the late Hollywod Fats in its riffs and its impeccable combination of rhythmicity and inventiveness.
As a bonus, the release adds another forty-five informative and amusing minutes of Goldwasser reminiscing about his musical development and past encounters with other bluesmen, over a varied, compelling series of backing tunes.—Steve Daniels

Anissa Lea
E&A Music Productions LLC

She’s a little bit blues, a little bit jazz, a little bit pop and a whole lotta soul! That pretty much sums up Detroit area singer-songwriter Anissa Lea in a nutshell. But then when you realize she’s just 15 years old it definitely stops you in your tracks. That is largely due to her sophisticated musical palette and self-assured vocal style evident on this eponymous debut.
The CD/vinyl release has a rich, classic vibe, from the B&W album cover to the warm analog sound. This girl’s got attitude right out of the gate, with a song popularized by Peggy Lee called “Why Don’t You Do Right.” The “Kansas Joe” McCoy composition is a funky, bluesy cooker, with a jazzy lilt. Lea’s come hither charm hits you like a ton of bricks. And her voice blends so well, with the slithery saxophone of The Motor City Horn’s Keith Kaminski and the drums of co-arranger Rob Emanuel. Lea summons the spirits of Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald for the ballad “Dream a Little Dream.” Her phrasing is uncannily reverent to those aforementioned legends, yet she makes it her own. Dwight Adams’ sweet muted trumpet and the backing vocals of Arie Griggs and Herb Harris add to that vintage feel. Sonny Burke’s “Black Coffee” is hands down ‘50s/’60s cool. Lea takes some liberties scatting here and there over this swinging samba groove. Sven Anderson’s solo piano and Kaminski’s baritone sax are icing on the cake. And when the young chanteuse wraps up her vocal with the line “my nerves have gone to pieces and my hair is turning gray,” you tend to believe her! The Shangri-Las’ “Remember Walking in the Sand” gets a jazzy redux, as Lea really wails on this one. There are nice rhythmic transitions from the verses to a swinging chorus. The mid-section features outstanding Latin-influenced solos by trumpeter Justin Garrett Walker and guitarist Jerry Jenson. Continuing with that ‘60s pop direction The Drifters’ “This Magic Moment” spotlights a light bossa nova groove accompanied by Jenson’s smooth Wes Montgomery/George Benson licks. Lea also knows how to take a rubato vamp section and really run with it. Dinah Washington’s “What a Difference a Day Makes” is a true show stopper. Lea’s ability to capture the moment and weave her voice in and around the other instruments is uncanny. This tune features strong leads on tenor from Kaminski, with stellar Lambert, Hendricks and Ross styled backing vocals from Harris and Griggs. Now “Can’t Take My Eyes Off of You” has been done to death by every lounge act from here to Timbuktu. But Lea and company give the classic Four Seasons’ hit new life. Her voice is effervescent and floats above the fray of a mildly percolating arrangement. The band takes some rhythmic liberties toward the finale which is a nice touch as well. “Trapped Inside” is the only original tune on the album and it holds its own in the set list. It is written by Lea and her producer/manager Alex J. Greene. It’s a nice slice of soul meets pop, dealing with powerful emotion and personal struggles. There is a timeless Laura Nyro/Carole King component here that hints at hearing much more from this songwriting team.
The final track on the album is unique in that it features outtakes from the recording. Here Lea discusses the origins of each song and her personal journey in discovering and recording them. It’s a fascinating aural log into this young and very gifted artist. –Eric Harabadian

Sam Sherwin
“Left In”

Sam Sherwin is an award-winning singer-songwriter that hails from New Jersey by way of Detroit. Born in the Motor City, Sherwin moved to New York City as a child and established a musical name on the NYC/NJ east coast rock/Americana/blues and r&b circuit. He’s played all the major clubs in NYC, including The Mercury Lounge, The R Bar, The China Club and Sullivan Hall. But his heart has periodically brought him back to Detroit to jam with cousin/guitar extraordinaire Jeff Grand and sit-ins with The Detroit Cobras and The Howling Diablos.
This 4 song EP features a diverse and esteemed collective of musicians such as keyboardist/producer Peter Vitalone (Garland Jeffrys, Les Paul), backing vocalist Ray Frazier (David Byrne), backing vocalist Walter Parks (Richie Havens), backing vocalist Janet LaBelle, bassist Bert Blind, percussionist/Kaleidoscope Sound owner Randy Crafton and Grammy/American Music Award-nominated drummer Aaron Comess of Spin Doctors. “Can’t Depend on You” opens the disc, with Sherwin’s spare and unadorned acoustic guitar. When the band kicks in Sherwin sets the scene of a carnival barker as he describes the dynamics of a rocky relationship. The groove is direct and spacious, with a very Phil Spector-ish wall of sound. The give and take from vocalist LaBelle recalls some of Linda Ronstadt’s best work. “Johnny Got Soul” is appropriately that, as Vitalone’s boogie piano licks compliment Sherwin’s swinging rhythms. The soulful groove of Comess volleys between four on the floor rock and a slightly jazz feel. Ray Frazier’s smooth response in the chorus really gives this one some spark. And Sherwin’s Eric Clapton/ Kim Simmonds-like guitar break adds an incendiary urgency to the track. They slow things down a bit for the touching ballad “Losing My Faith,” but lose none of the album’s momentum. This has a surreal, and almost gospel, feel, with the addition of Parks’ otherworldly falsetto. There’s also a real Springsteen/Leon Russell contemplative vibe to it. Vitalone’s piano and organ work here is amazingly sparse, yet wonderfully textured. That brings us to the final track on the EP called “The Wells Run Dry.” This is Sherwin at his bluesiest. He erupts out of the gate, with a groove that recalls early Fleetwood Mac spiced with Savoy Brown and John Lee Hooker. His guitar tone and solo style is gruff, yet refined; bridging that gap where rock, blues and jazz seamlessly meet. There are interesting tempo twists in the mid-section that resolve, with a dense instrumental and layered vocal finale.--Eric Harabadian ###


Rip It Up:
The Specialty Record Story
Billy Vera
BMG Books

Art Rupe’s Specialty Records was a commercially successful R&B independent label in the 1950’s mainly due to chart-topping hits by Guitar Slim, Lloyd Price, Little Richard and Larry Williams, but the company’s impact actually went back to the mid-Forties. Founded by Rupe in Los Angeles in 1946 as a derivative of his first venture, Juke Box Records, Rupe had an out-of-the-box hit with Roy Milton’s “RM Blues,” a truly leading-edge city blues record of the 1940’s, that led him to more big bands performing ballads, blues and boogie numbers that paid off with a chain of top-sellers by Joe Liggins, Camille Howard, Jimmy Liggins and, of course, Roy Milton and his Solid Senders. Percy Mayfield’s smoldering smash “Please Send Me Someone To Love” began the Fifties in fine fashion but the hip Rupe sensed his West Coast recordings were getting stale so he took a field trip down South to New Orleans looking for fresh blues and R&B material, returning with the master of Lloyd Price’s “Lawdy Miss Clawdy” which sold over a million and was the top R&B record of 1952. Similarly, Guitar Slim’s debut disc for Specialty, the quintessential “The Things That I Used To Do” also sold a million but Rupe’s raid on New Orleans was only complete when behind-the-scenes, Crescent City producers (Robert “Bumps” Blackwell, Sonny Bono and Harold Battiste) gave Little Richard that idiosyncratic sound that made the frenzied “Tutti Frutti” a nationwide hit in 1955. The extroverted showman followed with a string of successes with titles like “Long Tall Sally,” “Keep A Knockin’,” “Lucille” and “Good Golly Miss Molly” before he took that fateful airplane ride. In addition to R&B and the up-and-coming sounds of rock ‘n’ roll, from the likes of Larry “Short Fat Fannie” Williams, Don and Dewey (“Justine”) and Jerry Byrne (with his manic “Lights Out” featuring Art Neville’s mind-melding guitar solo, Rupe was also especially attracted to Black gospel music with a roster that encompassed Sam Cooke’s Soul Stirrers, Sister Wynona Carr, Brother Joe May and Alex Bradford among others. Vera’s easy-reading telling of the tale benefits greatly from his thirty year friendship with the memory-rich, “hands on” Rupe as well as conversations with the few remaining artists (lots of Little Richard) and fact-filled mini-biographies of the bustling music scenesters and performers. As Vera cogently puts it in his introduction “ What follows is the story of a label, its founder, and its artists who, together, contributed as much to mid-century music as the Atlantics, the Chesses, the Suns, and the rest, taking an esoteric form of music and bringing it to the masses—music that lives on more than half a century later.” Can’t argue with that. 16 great photos is the icing on the cake.—Gary von Tersch


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