Blues Reviews Feb/March 2016

Jimmy Adler
Grease Alley

Sprucewood Records
Recorded at Kid Anderson’s Grease Alley studio, with Kid Anderson twisting the knobs and playing both electric and standup bass, guitarist/vocalist Jimmy Adler has a rip-roaring disc on his hands. The fellas on the date are first-rate players, as well: drummer June Core, keyboardist Jim Pugh, and tenor saxophonist Eric Spaulding are joined by guest vocalist and guitarist Chris Cain on a couple of songs. This 13-tune collection is 100% original, although nods to heroes are conspicuous throughout. The opener, for instance, Play It Like Magic Sam, has Chicago written all over it, as you might expect. What you may not be ready for is Jimmy Adler. He’s adept on a jazzy groove like the opener on which he sings, “I’m not one for chit chat/my phone bill’s too much/I don’t send out postcards to keep in touch/I’m a guitar man/that’s what I am/try to tell it like T-Bone/say it like Magic Sam.” The single guitar notes cascade with impressive authority and the band is superb in their backing. On the title cut, played appropriately greasy-like, Adler and the fellas explore a New Orleans funk groove. He quotes When the Saints Go Marching In and Core lays down funky second line percussion. Drank Too Much showcases his impressive slide work and explores a familiar theme for some folks: “When I woke up this morning/had to drag myself out of bed/Put on a pot of coffee to clear my whiskey head/I drank too much.”
No Pain is a bluesy salute to serious drinking, or is it a tribute to John Lee Hooker? Jimmy shares the mic stand with the great Chris Cain singing, “The older I get seem like the less that I know … my doctor’s got me on a prescription/He give me milk, cream and alcohol/that’s why that’s why that’s why/I don’t feel no pain at all.” Adler’s guitar work is sharp and concise, the epitome of electric guitar blues. Nine Behind is a nod to Albert Collins reminding of Master Card. Jim Pugh turns in a superb piano. I Can’t Wait is a west coast swinging affair. “You’ll be smiling when we’re through/can’t wait to get my hands on you.” The saxophone is sexy here. Cornbread and Lima Beans is more of the same, “Corn bread and lima beans/fried chicken and collard greens/way down south where the music’s from.” Cordelia showcases more of Adler’s jazzy chops (“put down your dress Cordelia/they already had last call.”). The guitar and sax unison lines are a treat. What Will You Do again features Chris Cain, though this time on guitar. Adler sings “I been suffering in silence for too long.” Pugh has a nice upright piano section that defines ‘tickling the ivories.’ The closer, Hoodoo Highway, with its Mojo Working riff, is a tribute to Muddy Waters. Honky tonk, bar walkin’ saxophone shares space with Adler’s twangy guitar. Good stuff made for plenty pf volume. You’re right, Robert Jr., he is hot stuff!—Mark E. Gallo

Fiona Boyes
Box & Dice

Reference Recordings
Ever since she won the solo acoustic category in the International Blues Challenge of 2003 (the first woman and the first Australian to do so) Fiona Boyes has been as unstoppable as a wild fire. She’s won more awards and accolades than you can shake a guitar at and she gathers more fans with each new release. The release at hand will likely bring even more into the fray. A master of multiple styles – from Piedmont finger picking to prewar Delta to Chicago and back, she brings classic songwriting, and powerful, muscular vocals to a repertoire that stretches back to the 1920s. For this 13th release she steps into a new realm of playing with the cigar box guitar, or, as she described it in the liners, “a little junk yard dog of a guitar.” She plays it here, along with a one-of-a-kind National Reso-lectric Baritone, her Maton Mastersound electric, and a four string box guitar acquired just before the recordings began.
Outside of three wonderful covers, these are all new and original songs meant to showcase her talents on each guitar. That talent is abundant in this collection. Boyes is a maestro who writes clever material, plays the heck out of the guitar and has an attention-getting rough vocal prowess that captivates. The opener, Juke Joint on Moses Lane, about a Tallahassee club (Bradfordville Blues Club), grabs the ears with authority. She sings, “Outside they’re frying catfish/inside they’re raising cane.” Stunning guitar with a sparse drum. Walking Round Money has an equally minimalist groove, although groove is the operative word. This is the kind of song you shake and twist in your chair to (“I got my walkin round money and I feel alright.”). Her version of Smokestack Lightning is as good as any I’ve heard down to the howl. Guitar, again, is spectacular. It’s a given that the guitar playing will never be less than awesome. Boyes is about telling the story – whether lyrically or with her guitar. On Mama’s Sanctified Amp her slide work is unparalleled. “Mama don’t allow no devil’s music/mama’s amp was sanctified.” Walk With Me (“times of trial be my friend”) is a tender ballad that mesmerizes with its sweetness. Tiny Pinch of Sin features fantastic slide work and opines that “Life is full of blessings and a tiny pinch of sin.” This is a fun one. The closer is Magic Sam’s Easy Baby and it’s a tour de force of wicked good guitar straight out of the legend’s play book, with that classic echo. As a fan I can say that this may well be the best thing she’s ever recorded. It sure works for these ears. —Mark E. Gallo

Jon Cleary
GoGo Juice

FHQ Records
Jon Cleary may have been born in England but his heart and soul resides deep in New Orleans and his newest recording of all original music, “Go Go Juice,” typifies this with a universal funk that may be the new sound of Rhythm and Blues. Recorded with a Louisiana crew including Derwin Perkins and Shane Theriot on guitars, bassist Calvin Turner, drummer Terence Higgins, Nigel Hall on keyboard and a horn section including Eric Bloom trumpet, Ryan Zoidis saxophone and Charles Haloran trombone and with the late Allen Toussaint fulfilling the Big Easy sound writing horn charts to get this real gone.
Ringing in with rim shots, grooving horns and easy swinging vocals “Pump It Up” bounces along slowing for a chorus then pumping again till an angular guitar winds into a second line drum number with the Dirty Dozen horns taking it to the “Boneyard” and back to guitar as a heartbeat organ fades to the finish. Shifting from the funk to a deceptively upbeat piano ballad Jon gently pleads “Brother I’m Hungry” for those unfortunates asking for a hand up from those cold streets, bringing a tear as you realize the true gravity of his song. Keeping the funk in the street “Getcha GoGo Juice” Jon says it’s “comprised entirely of lines I’ve overheard people say in New Orleans.” A Jr Walker-styled horn ushers in the vocals of “Beg Steal or Borrow” a funky piano underpinning the backup vocals and the horns leading out. A gentle vocal and piano with sparse ringing slide “Step Into My Life” has a surging undercurrent of bass pulling it forward to the full band. After Katrina, many musicians were set adrift, Cleary sings “Bringing Back the Home” from the heart as the music surges into a chorus of “jazz, funk, rhythm & blues and soul” creating a hymn-like quality, with Ivan Neville and others getting into the flow and true heartbeat of the city. Slipping into a gentle swing for “9-5,” that gig for some people can feel like doing nine to ninety-nine as their lives slip away while their remote control takes them deeper into that harsh sentence. The finale “Love On One Condition” sums up the easy funk that pervades this disc.
Though Jon Cleary may speak with an English accent, the spirit of his adopted city has sculpted the essence of “GoGo Juice,” it’s 100% New Orleans. —Roger & Margaret White

Westside Andy
Blues Just Happen

Earrelevant Records
Westside Andy may be slight in stature but he’s huge in heart; when I complimented him on a harp solo he told me “it all comes from the heart” and that’s right where he hits you. Andy is regarded so highly that Dan Aykroyd wrote the liner notes saying, “Blues Just Happen” “is one of the tightest, perfectly true to the American Blues form to arrive in years....the new standard for aspiring and even veteran electric amplified harmonica players.” The title of Andy Linderman’s newest CD “Blues Just Happen,” typifies his modesty, it didn’t just happen, he’s developed his style, crafting his skills playing thousands of gigs over decades on the road. Currently touring with Reverend Raven and the Chain Smoking Altar Boys, for this endeavor Andy has enlisted the assistance of old friends and ace Chicago players Barrelhouse Chuck on keys, Billy Flynn on guitar with a rhythm section of Dave Wood and Steve Dougherty. Then, playing live at the Armory in Janesville, Wisconsin, Andy let these blues happen.
The disc kicks with a tight set of classics that allows everyone to get loose with Little Walter’s “Just Keep Loving Her” and a moody “Sad Hours.” Chuck and Flynn underscore Andy’s full throated authority on Muddy’s “Mean Disposition” as the interplay of slide, harp and piano recreate that classic Chicago sound. Jumping with a lighter tone, John Lee Hooker’s “My Daddy Was A Jockey” takes a joyful leap as the harp truly takes flight before bringing it back down to earth with Smokey Smothers’ “Got My Eyes On You” with Andy’s harp piercing the tension as Chuck’s vintage Farfisa organ stings. Billy Flynn steps up with his own “Liquor Store Blues” as a wobbly harp and stumbling piano lead to Andy’s high head solo before Chuck goes flying into a raucous “Lonesome” from Memphis Slim and Andy’s harp echoes Barrelhouse’s final flight of boogie. Westside also penned two original instrumentals, the first simply called “Just Cuz,” an easy rolling stroll that continues the interplay between piano and harp before charging into Detroit Jr’s “Call My Job” with guitar and piano leads swerving onto the “Killing Floor.” From there Andy leads an elegant instrumental cover of Wilson Pickett’s hit “Don’t Let The Green Grass Fool You” then signals the end of the set with a get ‘em to their feet original “Over & Out.”
Westside Andy’s “Blues Just Happen” is a generous slice of real Chicago blues with heartful soul.—Roger & Margaret White

The Knickerbocker All-Stars
Go Back Home to the Blues

JP Cadillac Records 2015
In autumn 2014 I reviewed the debut release by the Knickerbocker All-Stars, and proclaimed it one of the best albums of the year. The good news: this sophomore effort is equally as good, one of the best albums of 2015.
The core group of this Rhode Island ensemble remains essentially intact, but there have been a few changes. Instead of a roster of eight rotating singers, the list has been reduced to four. Guitarist Ricky King Russell has been replaced by Monster Mike Welch, who acquits himself splendidly. The piano chair is now exclusively the province of Al Copley due to the sad demise of keyboard maven Dave Maxwell. Also playing a more prominent role is Al Basile, who plays cornet on one track and composed four of the thirteen songs.
Most of these musicians have known each other for years, and the group is basically an amalgam of past and current members of Roomful of Blues, the Duke Robillard Band, and Sugar Ray (Norcia) and the Bluetones. Their rapport is seamless.
The selection of tunes is likewise top-notch. The prevailing motif is horn-driven jump blues, exemplified by covers of Fontaine Brown’s “Cadillac Baby” and Chuck Willis’ “Take It Like a Man.” When those tunes kick in, your brain may advise, Stay dignified, but your feet will declare unequivocally, Get up and dance! There are two instrumentals: “Hokin’ “ is anchored by Copley’s piano and features a “battle” between the three saxophones…without a loser! “Blockbuster Boogie” again showcases Copley, as well as Doc Chanonhouse with an impressive trumpet solo.
Welch is given limited room to display his chops, but makes the most of it. His intro solo on “Annie Get Your Thing On” invokes Albert King in a track which intriguingly changes tempo twice; the tempo change recurs in “He Was a Friend of Mine,” which begins as a gritty Chicago blues, segues to some smooth soulful crooning, and closes back in the Windy City.
Finally, enough can’t be said about the vocalists. Sugar Ray, of course, has established his credentials over many years and many albums, but Brain Templeton and Willie J Laws (and Basile on one cut) are equally and dazzlingly good.
Can’t wait for this group’s next effort!— Steve Daniels

Nikki James
The Album

Fat Girl Records
Nikki James is a Detroit treasure. An unabashed music fan and booster, serving on the board of the Detroit Blues Society and performing with her crackerjack band at the drop of a hat, she’s also an organizer of sundry events and jams. Between her first disc in 1999 and The Album were a few years when her fans spoke of her career in the past tense. She was diagnosed with a node on her vocal cords from overuse. “In 1998 I had a node removed from my vocal cords. Dr. said quit singing until it shrinks or have it removed. Well like most professional musicians I needed to work so I opted to have it removed and took a few months off versus years.” Her appearances were few and far between for a bit. She hit the stages will a vengeance about a year ago. The disc at hand speaks to the renewed energy that she brings.
With the able assistance of some of the baddest guitar players in Detroit – Jim McCarty (Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels and Cactus fame), Josh Ford, Robert Noll (ex-Albert Collins), Brett Lucas (Bettye LaVette) and Dave Mazzara – and rock steady rhythm masters Todd Glass or Ron Pangborn on drums, Alex Lyon on bass, James Wailin (harp), and keyboardists Phil Hale and Jimmy ‘Blues’ David, Nikki has surrounded herself with top notch talent. The main event is clearly the singer, though. This singer has pipes to spare and she doesn’t hold back anywhere on this all-original set. Opening with Just When You Think she makes it abundantly clear why she’s one of the most respected and admired singers in town. “Just when you think you got all figured out/Just when you think you know what you’re talking about” everything changes. She gives the players room to stretch and McCarty shreds while Glass beats the drums mightily. I’m Your Child is a rockin’ testimony to her faith replete with fiery harp and showcases her quiet side.
Still Burnin’ (Motor City Race Fires) speaks to the 1967 riots in Detroit, the week that she was born. McCarty’s guitar work replicates the chaos that was the city complexion at the time and James sings of 1967, 1997 and 2007 and on and on in the same breath. Nothing has changed. Lyrically the strongest song on the disc, Nikki James sings of her mother disapproving of her liking “that fine black boy down on the corner,” telling her to “stick with your own kind.” The fires are still burning. The gospel-inflected Thornetta Davis’ backing vocal adds to the power. On I Got the Blues she sings, “It’s three o’clock in the morning/I sit here and wait/20 days out of 30 my baby’s been home late/you been shining up your walkin shoes and I got the blues.” The energy is high. In addition to Koko Taylor, James calls Paul Rogers her most important musical influence. She rocks like a woman with more than a little of that rock and roll in her soul.
On Mama Learned to Boogie she gobbles the mic while Noll rocks and Glass keeps the beat heavy. She sings, “Since she been gone/things just ain’t the same” and the band breaks into a Savoy Brown shuffle and sparks fly. She adds an almost country wisp to the beautiful Please Don’t Walk Away, and I’m Watching You takes it back to the heavy groove. “Most of the time things went fine/seemed fine to me/Went out on a weekend with the girls/got stoned and watched TV.” Brett Lucas provides the burning guitar. On I Found Love Josh Ford takes the funky lead guitar role while Nikki sings over Hale’s organ. “I love you good mister/love you right mister/love you long.” This is grease Detroit style. The closing I Don’t Want to Leave You speaks to the confliction of emotions. She sings, “Call me crazy/call me fool/I’d be a lost and lonely woman if I never had you.”
The package is brilliant, from Nikki’s powerful and expressive vocals to the fiery instrumentation to the cover art. First class. Highly recommended.—Mark E. Gallo

Brad Vickers & His Vestipolitans
That’s What They Say

Man Hat Tone
Brad Vickers has been mining the old timey, rags and classic blues field for years. He cut his musical teeth with the likes of Pinetop Perkins, Sleepy LaBeef and Hubert Sumlin before taking it on the road and into the studio under his own name. This is his fifth recording and it’s perhaps the most enjoyable. In addition to Vickers’ guitar and vocals, Margey Peters is on bass, fiddle, and backing vocals, and Bill Rankin plays drums. Matt Cowan (baritone sax), and Jim Davis (clarinet) add the right amount of swing. Dave Gross plays upright and electric bass, mandolin, and banjo here and there, Charles Burnham plays fiddle here and there, and Mikey Junior adds backing vocals.
There is so much to recommend this brilliant collection, starting with the opening Tampa Red-penned Seminole Blues (“she left this morning on that Seminole/I got the blues so bad it hurts my tongue to talk/I’d follow my baby but it hurts my feet to walk”), performed by the trio of Vickers on bottleneck and vocals, Peters on bass and Rankin on drums. The following Don’t You Love Your Daddy No More, with sweet clarinet filigrees and bottleneck, harkens back to that same era but with added jazz influence. Credited as traditional and learned from Leadbelly it’s a fine representative of what is to follow. Classic American music written by either Vickers or Peters, but sounding like it was written decades ago.
Vickers mines a lot of stylistic territory here. If You Leave Me Now is fiddle and percussion driven and Everything About You Is Blue is a folk-blues, again enhanced by Charles Burnham’s violin. Another Lonesome Road is lyrically and musically fun. You’ve heard a few dozen songs about that famed lonesome road. Here, Vickers laments “why am I goin’ down another lonesome road/can anybody tell me/does anybody know?” The title cut (“a jackass without his Janey mule/He’s not an ass/he’s just a fool”) is a medium tempo blues smile-inducer. Mountain Sparrow is an Appalachian style fiddle tune. Margey Peters’ Fightin’ is an acapella (with backing vocals and percussion) take on the age old subject of wars, or more specifically wars fought over religious beliefs. Fighting in the name of the Lord — whichever Lord you subscribe to. The following Don’t You Change a Thing lightens the mood with a driving guitar and fiddle romp. Mama’s Cookin’ opens with a cymbal one, one-and-two, one-and-two rhythm and is enhanced by horns. Margey sings about “lasagna, ravioli, meatballs and ziti. Eggplant parmigiana and a little cabanini.” and says “isn’t it great to be Italian?” Twenty-first Century Rag is just that. On it Vickers and Peters sing, “We used to go to a movie/now a movie comes to us….new times are coming our way/old ways are fading away.” The times they are a changin’. Margey Peters’ fiddle is outstanding. The Secret is a rocker of sorts and Having A Ball is a rockabilly-flavored number that features Dave Gross on electric bass and piano. The closer, In For A Penny, is what he refers to as “gypsy-tinged.” On it, Peters is joined by Christine Santelli and Gina Sicilia. The vocals dominate. The guitar and percussion support. Brad and the band don’t fail to delight.—Mark E. Gallo

Crooked Eye Tommy
Butterflies & Snakes

Self-produced 2015
Over the last several years guitarist/vocalist Tommy Marsh and his band have established themselves as a veritable blues institution in their home of Ventura, CA, and the surrounding area. In addition to playing festivals and multiple gigs throughout California, the group hosts a weekly blues jam session in Ventura, generously plays benefits, and also represented the Santa Barbara Blues Society at the 2014 International Blues Challenge with considerable success.
The ensemble is comprised of Tommy on lead guitar and vocals, his brother Paddy on guitar and vocals, Glade Rasmussen on bass, Tony Cicero on drums, and renowned regional multi-instrumentalist Jim Calire on saxophone and keyboards.
A few others musicians augment selected tunes adeptly. Their debut album is an indisputable winner.
Perhaps most impressive is the quality of the eleven songs, all of them originals penned by one of the Marsh brothers. There is not a clunker in the bunch, and I predict that other artists will soon be clamoring to cover them. The album opens with the eponymously named “Crooked Eye Tommy,” a compelling tune synopsizing Tommy’s background. “Come on In” displays a greasy guitar intro followed by the two Marshes nice guitar interplay, followed by one of my favorites of the outing, “I Stole the Blues,” wherein the band name-checks Muddy Waters, Albert King, Johnny Winter, and T-Bone Walker as members of the pantheon of blues heroes that it has proudly stolen [learned] from. “Time Will Tell” gives Calire room to vamp on organ, as does guest Bill Bilhou on “Tide Pool,” the ethereal next number, abetted by background harmonies.
The album really hits its apex with “Love Divine” and “After the Burn”; the former, reminiscent of the best of Robert Cray or Ronnie Earl, has syncopated guitar interplay and an inspired and inspiring vocal; the latter is a finger-popping, danceable track with an undertone of reggae.
That ain’t all! “Over and Over” is a slow seven minute love ballad with a beautiful saxophone contribution by Calire, and the album closes with “Southern Heart” - you guessed it - a mid-tempo tune proving that the band can play quality country music, too.
Tommy Marsh’s guitar leads are splendid throughout, moving without being showy or frenetic, and his tenor vocals are equally excellent. I’m lucky because these guys live near me and I can see them when I want to; if you can’t, you can enjoy this top-notch release instead.— Steve Daniels

Reverend Tall Tree
Reverend Tall Tree

Yards Records 2015
Consensus holds that blues music evolved from progenitors in west Africa, and was transmuted into the music we know and love via field hollers, work songs and early gospel expressions. Innumerable seminal blues artists moved from the religious to the secular (and some back again); think Reverend Gary Davis among others. In the contemporary blues world several artists invoke the tradition, whether or not they are or ever were actually clergy. Reverends Raven, Shawn Amos, and Billy Wirtz immediately come to mind. Whether their religion is Christianity or the blues or both, they are devout.
Joining the roster is Reverend Tall Tree, a moniker adopted by Southern California bluesman Chris Pierce. His debut album presents him front and center of a quartet comprised of Ol’t Parker on guitar and keyboards, Doctor Cooper on bass, and Professor Lovejoy on drums. (We’re not told if these are aspirational advanced degrees or actually belong to professionals.) Big Mono sits in on six of the ten tracks, playing various instruments.
Fittingly, the eponymously named album spotlights the Reverend’s vocal on every cut. Song selection features three originals, and the rest are covers of tunes by such luminaries as Willie Dixon, Big Walter Jacobs, Amos Milburn, and even Bob Dylan.
What we get is an interesting amalgam of grit, soul, and a bit of crooning. The opening cut, “Light My Candle,” with its suggestive lyric, segues into a cover of Dixon’s “Mellow Down Easy,” distinguished by nicely syncopated bass and drums. The brief shuffle “Railroad Line” is followed by “Boom Boom Baby,” a Tall Tree original evoking memories of Little Richard in his prime. “How Do You Get Over That,” another original, allows Tall Tree to display his soul chops to good effect.
“Tell Me Mama” is an uptempo rockin’ blues, leading into Dixon’s “Pretty Thing,” a vehicle for Tall Tree to show his vocal range. The rev. then tackles Dylan’s “Everything Is Broken” with a histrionic vocal, but ends smoothly with the aptly reverential “Everlasting Light.”
Parker’s guitar support, distorted and greasy in a Mississippi hill country style, is generally appropriate (check out Milburn’s “Bad Bad Whiskey”), although somewhat jarring in “How Do You Get Over That.” Tall Tree himself pitches in on harmonica on several cuts, with varying success. Over-all, the CD presents a variety of blues from a promising talent.— Steve Daniels

Ana & Milton Popovic
Blue Room

ArtisteXclusive Records 2015
She may look about eighteen, but Ana Popovic has been playing the blues for over twenty years. Exposed to the blues by her guitar-playing father in their home in Belgrade (in then-Yugoslavia, now Serbia), she fell in love with the music, picked up her father’s guitar at age fifteen, and hasn’t looked back. Her first album was released in 1998, and since then she has produced several more highly lauded albums and established a successful career in Europe and the U.S. Now ensconced in Memphis, she allegedly plied all her wiles for ten years to convince her reluctant father to finally to collaborate on an album.
Supposedly dad chose the sturdy supporting crew, comprised of Rick Steff on keyboards, Dave Smith on bass, and Steve Potts on drums. Together Ana and Milton selected eleven quality songs to cover. Maven that she is, Ana takes the guitar leads, but Milton lends solid rhythm backing, and they share vocals adeptly. Their harmonizing is especially appealing, and suggests that they have indeed been singing together for years.
The set begins with the brief “Catfish Blues” by Robert Petway, with Ana purveying nice acoustic slide. Milton carries most of the vocal load on John Lennon’s “I’m Losing You,” and the two trade guitar solos on the beautiful “Evening Shadows,” a number stimulating memories of 1970s Fleetwood Mac. On “Grant Spivey,” an ode to Victoria Spivey’s own father, Ana goes it alone, followed by the heavy rocker “Somebody,” handled by Milton with vocal aplomb.
Two slow tempo Tony Joe White tracks ensue, and for me they are highlights. “Did Somebody Make a Fool Out of You” presents some delicious guitar interplay between the principals, and “Rainy Night in Georgia” is equally moving despite a somewhat incongruous frenetic mid-song six-string foray by Ana. The set puts some rock into “Red River Blues” by Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee and “Baby What’s Wrong” by Jimmy Reed, the former tune distinguished by Steff’s fine piano work, and the CD closes with a slow rendition of John Lee Hooker’s “Tupelo,” which Milton fashions into a spooky talking blues abetted by Ana’s acoustic slide.
Speaking of which - Ana is a whiz on guitar, but it’s no surprise that she has participated in multiple Jimi Hendrix tribute tours: she loves that wah-wah pedal and furious strings of notes. She’s damned good at it, too, but when she slows down and plays emotionally, she is sublime.—Steve Daniels

The Blues Songsters
Various Artists
Rough Guide  RGNET1343CD World Music Network

Unsung Heroes Of Country Blues Vol. 2
Various Artists
Rough Guide RGNET1344CD World Music Network
The songster tradition, both anticipating and co-existing with blues music, began shortly after the end of slavery and the Reconstruction era as African-American musicians were able to travel and play music for a living—with black and white performers alike sharing the same repertoire, chiefly an extensive assortment of folk songs, spirituals, ballads, dance tunes, minstrel ditties and rags and reels. Along with a number of musicians shrouded in mystery and scarcely recorded—Lonnie Coleman, Will Bennett, Dick Justice and Hambone Willie Newbern, for instance, along with Louie Laskey—who asks the eternal question “How You Want Your Rollin’ Done?”—this 24 track, superb sounding Songster compilation also boasts numbers by legends on the order of Leadbelly, Charley Patton, Mississippi John Hurt, Blind Blake, Furry Lewis, Frank Stokes and a host of others. How can you go wrong with a collection that includes the illustrious Stovepipe No. 1 & his buddy David Crockett singing “A Chicken Can Waltz The Gravy Around.”? Similar to the first volume in Rough Guide’s “Unsung Heroes” series, this follow-up CD (also with a generous 24 tracks) is, likewise, full of surprises and hidden nuggets and serves as a refreshing overview of the regionally varied forms of the country blues idiom. The laid-back East Coast branch is particularly well represented by a trio of guitar virtuosos—Willie Walker (who Josh White touted as the best string-snapper he ever heard), the singing barber William Moore (who in between haircuts cut a raft of sides for Paramount) and the illustrious Barbecue Bob’s brother, Charley Lincoln, with his cautionary “Mama Don’t Rush Me.” The more intense, emotionally arresting Delta Blues offshoot includes well-chosen sides by Kid Bailey, slide-guitar whiz Sylvester Weaver (who recorded the first blues instrumental, “Guitar Rag”) and Ishman Bracey, with his profoundly chilling “Woman Woman Blues.” Incidentally, Bailey and Bracey were part of a group of blues legends that included the venerable Son House and Tommy Johnson. Other favorites encompass Delta blues diva Mattie Delaney (with an energetic redo of Tommy Johnson’s “Big Road Blues”), exalted minstrel show harmonica ace Jaybird Coleman (a witty “Man Trouble Blues”) with things winding down to an apropos conclusion courtesy of Little Hat Jones’ signature song “Bye Bye Baby Blues.” Both well worth hunting down along with Rough Guide’s first volume of Unsung Heroes and an entire CD devoted to the extremely popular Barbecue Bob. —Gary von Tersch  

Bob Margolin
My Road

Steady Rollin’ Records/VizzTone 2016
Initially inspired by seminal rock-and-roller Chuck Berry, Bob Margolin was playing in bands by his late teens. His talent was appreciated by none other than Muddy Waters, in whose band Margolin played from 1973 until he left to form his own group in 1980. Since then he has garnered multiple plaudits and awards, released many albums and diversified: one of his recent albums, in 2012, was a duo effort with the late pianist and singer Ann Rabson.
His brand new release features Margolin accompanied only by drummer Chuck Cotton and harmonica player and rhythm guitarist Tad Walters as they explore a dozen eclectic tunes. Don’t expect twelve or even two Chicago blues numbers. Margolin composed seven of the tunes, which are alternately introspective, nostalgic, and regretful. In addition, there are nice covers of songs by Nappy Brown and Sean Costello, among others.
Those who have been following Margolin’s career know that he has become a skilled author and music columnist as well as musician, and so the trenchant and moving lyrics of his songs are no surprise. “I Shall Prevail” is a fierce assertion of will in the face of adversity, as the singer proclaims that “I used to run through the world, but now I have to climb.” “Young and Old Blues” is a simultaneously humorous and rueful observation on aging, and “Understanding Heart” a poignant plea for compassion and understanding.
The set is bookended by two of its best tunes. The opener, “My Whole Life,” reprises Margolin’s career as a musician - “Blues has been my teacher for everything I’ve learned” - accompanied by his greasy guitar licks and nice interplay with Walters’ harmonica. The long closing piece, “Heaven Mississippi,” is a slow, almost-talking blues that name-checks Muddy, Robert Johnson, Koko Taylor, Junior Wells and a slew of other blues greats who have etched their music and characters into Bob’s persona.
Chuck Cotton provides exemplary rhythmic support throughout, and he and Margolin harmonize vocally on Nappy Brown’s “Bye Bye Baby” with only Walters’ harp accompaniment. On “Young and Old Blues” Walters and Margolin mesh their guitar offerings splendidly. Several other cuts highlight Margolin expertly intertwining with his own overdubs on guitar and bass. As a guitarist, Bob displays his prowess and creativity with consistently inventive combinations of chords and single notes. Oh, yeah, don’t lament the absence of Chicago blues: “Feelin’ Right Tonight” has it covered.— Steve Daniels 

In The Shadow Of Sun:
Memphis Area R&B And Rock & Roll

Fantastic Voyage FVTD-200
With its commanding position overlooking one of the world’s major rivers and its strategic location at the crossroads of the mid-South, with Mississippi to the immediate south and Arkansas to the immediate west, Memphis was often the first stop for musicians of all stripes from the rural Mississippi Delta, looking for work and on their way to the industrial North. By the early 1950s, its population had soared to nearly half a million and the time was ripe for a plethora of homegrown independent labels, often shoestring operations, to cater to the local jukeboxes and emerging radio stations and, in effect, also act as an outlet for the area’s semi-professional (yet often very talented) artists who were doing fine without making the often arduous journey up to Nashville, Chicago, St Louis or Detroit to record. The very accurately titled In The Shadow Of Sun, compiled and annotated by the knowledgeable Dave Penny, collects 101 raw-sounding, often blues-accented rockabilly/hillbilly/rock ‘n’ roll-oriented tracks released on independent labels in Memphis (or nearby) that followed in the wake of the runaway success of Elvis Presley and Sam Phillips’ Sun Records in the mid-1950s. Early participants in the indies stakes include James Mattis’ optimistically titled Starmaker label (that folded after only three releases) while a pair of California concerns, Ekko and Modern, established their own Memphis-based imprints—the latter created the Meteor label and recorded the likes of Joe Hill Louis and Little Milton. Soon thereafter came OJ, Von (based just over the state line in Mississippi), House of Sound, Jaxon, Atomic, Lu, Sure, Hornet, Moon, Sky (another Mississippi-based imprint), Erwin, Kay, Crystal, House of Sound (actually on Beale Street), Kim, Blues Boy Kingdom (owned by B.B. King), Stomper Time, Katche, Skipper, Rita, Benton and the still thriving Ardent label—responsible for unleashing Alex Chilton and Big Star on the world. If most of these labels are unfamiliar, it’s no surprise that with scant exceptions, like the fore-mentioned Joe Hill Louis and Little Milton and Roosevelt Sykes, Carl Mann (with Carl Perkins), Wink “Deck Of Cards” Martindale, Willie Mitchell, Fenton Robinson and Johnny Burnette, the artists are equally enigmatic which is exactly why their few, often ill-distributed recordings have been revered by ensuing generations of hep collectors. It’s great to have an abundance of them in one place. Play loud! —Gary von Tersch 

Frank Lindamood
Songs From The OTHER Great American Songbook

Good Track Records
Floridian Frank Lindamood is an inveterate scholar of the likes of Leadbelly, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Jimmie Rodgers, Uncle Dave Macon and Gus Cannon’s Jug Stompers. As his hometown newspaper, The Sopchoppy Examiner, puts it: “His songs ring with the voices and voicings of the past. He’s a bare-knuckled guitar player, a master of the early 20th century banjo style and a lucid but gritty bender of notes on his metal-bodied resonator.” Lindamood’s widely acclaimed 2010 Gatorbone Records release, Hewed From The Rock, is an outstanding, all-originals solo effort whose no-overdubbing, one-take production approach acknowledges and pays tribute to the masters he has studied and interpreted over the course of his career. His latest project, in collaboration with Michael Koppy, is much more ambitious—a hardback, copiously illustrated book, with a seventeen song CD tucked into the front, that features Lindamood performing songs from a wide repertoire of North American sources that he’s been collecting and adapting for nearly fifty years—from “John Henry” and “Lonesome Road Blues” to “Frankie And Johnny” and “Goodnight Irene.” Some of the titles are straightforward folk songs while others were part of the pop music of an earlier generation but what they all have in common is their ageless nature that artfully surpasses all the fickleness of musical tastes (hence the project’s title) and speak to the listener as forthrightly and clearly as they did to our forebears. The book is written by Koppy, Dan Simberloff and Lindamood (Koppy’s introductory remarks are particularly insightful) and includes a assiduously researched background essay on each of the songs—that range from vintage blues (“Devil Got My Woman” and “Drunken Spree”), old-timey and cowboy favorites like “The Cuckoo” and “Old Paint,” a gospel standard (“Nearer My God To Thee”) and the quartet of more well-known traditional titles noted above. A real breath of fresh air and a current constant on my car CD player. Available  for the modest price of $25 from Well worth the search.—Gary von Tersch

Various Artists
Various Modern/ Flair/Meteor/RPM 45’s
Ace Records (UK)
Formed in April, 1945 in Los Angeles by white businessman Jules Bihari and his three brothers Saul, Joe and Lester, Modern Records (and its various subsidiaries) was one of the most superior rhythm and blues and blues indies of the postwar era. The brothers, mainly because of their streamlined distribution system, proved very influential in the process of transforming black rhythm ‘n’ ßblues music into rock ‘n’ roll which began to appeal to white teenagers in the mid-1950s—the enterprising quartet had a label based in Memphis called Meteor (that released singles by the likes of Elmore James and Sunny Blair), a regional office in New York City, conducted numerous field trips and had numerous contacts throughout the South. The other labels besides parent Modern, that issued sides by John Lee Hooker (success struck right out of the box with Hooker’s chart-topping “Boogie Chillen”), Boyd Gilmore and the doo-wopping Cliques, were RPM and Flair. The former’s roster included Howlin’ Wolf, Preacher Stephens, The Fox and the enigmatic George “Mr. Blues” Jackson while Flair released jukebox and DJ favorites by Mercy Dee, Little Johnny Jones and his Hound Dogs, Big Duke, Ike Turner (who also was a talent scout for the label), Shirley Gunter and the Flairs as well as Chicago’s Little Johnny Jones and Elmore James. Under review here are 20 exact- reproduction 45’s by all the artists mentioned above—particular gems include all three by Elmore James and his Broom Dusters, a pair by Ike Turner ( the timely “Cuban Get Away” and “Cubano Jump”), The Fox’s off-the-wall two-part “The Dream,” “Gettin’ High” by the Flairs, Preacher Stephens’ “Whoopin’ And A Hollerin’” and Jones and his Hound Dogs with their fantastic “Dirty By The Dozen.” Get your favorites while they last—check out the “Singles” category at Ace’s website.—Gary von Tersch

Groovin’ The Blues/Rockin’ The Groove
When Groove Was More Than Just A Habit

Bear Family BCD 17411/BCD 17412
Noting the commercial success of newly arisen independent labels like Atlantic, Specialty, King, Chess and Imperial among a host of others in the early 1950s, industry giant RCA Victor decided to enter the jukebox and radio station friendly rhythm ‘n’ blues/blues field, hiring A&R man Danny Kessler away from Columbia’s race label, Okeh. Groove (with its distinctive greenish label) only survived until late 1957 and managed only one hit (Mickey and Sylvia’s crossover smash “Love Is Strange”) but recorded a lot of great music. Conducting sessions in both New York as well as at various Southern locations, Groove featured a wide-ranging roster of artists from top-shelf vocal groups like the Du Droppers (an easy rockers “That’s All I Need” and “You’ve Been Good To Everybody” are here), a bevy of tough-sounding female vocalists in the Ruth Brown/Lavern Baker mold (check out Maymie Watts, Lil McKenzie, Bertice Reasing and Lillian Childs for starters), future smooth jazz guitarist George Benson (with, unfortunately, a pair of forgettable sides), R&B blues guitarist Roy Gaines at the rip-roaring outset of his career (a hard-driving “Hoodoo” is here), Sam “Highpockets” Henderson (otherwise known as West Coast jazz legend Shorty Rogers) and raucous country blues harmonica genius Sonny Terry—who recorded for everybody. Along with Terry, a raft of bluesmen dominate the Groovin’ disc—from Champion Jack Dupree, Cousin Leroy, Big Tiny Kennedy, Little Tommy Brown (with his have-to-hear-it to-believe-it weeper “Don’t Leave Me”), Oscar Black and Sonny Brooks—with his laid-back “Sentimental Blues.” Also featured on various selections are top-notch, hot R&B bandleaders like Buddy Lucas and Paul Williams and first-call session men such as guitarist Mickey Baker—of “Love Is Strange” fame. Three great drinking songs are scattered among the 68 tracks—Sonny Brooks with his new concoction “Champ Ale,” Sonny Terry with his “Juice Head Woman” and Buddy Lucas’ red-faced admission “I Got Drunk.” Two CD’s, with extensively researched liners by Bill Dahl, devoted to an intriguing, little known slice of R&B history. But where’s Piano Red?—Gary von Tersch

Chris O’Leary
Gonna Die Tyrin’

American Show Place Music
2015 was a year that saw a number of impressive harmonica-led recordings. For this writer’s money, Chris O’Leary stood at the head of the class. With a fat tome that sometimes reminds of William Clarke, O’Leary is an exceptionally impressive songwriter and vocalist, as well. He’s as steeped in real life as he is in poetic painting. On the opener, Can’t Help Yourself (“If you want to do it/ ahead and just say screw it.”) Chris Vitarello’s guitar is fluid and stinging. O’Leary blows crystal clear harp. 19cents a day is a glimpse into the reality of war (“A pat on the back/HR will show you the door/when they finish screwin’ dad they’ll send junior off to war/3 years in the guard he’s on tour number 2 when it’s someone else’s son it’s an easy thing to do/See we appreciate your service sir, but sir you’ve got to go … I’m sure they can help you down at the VA/where they fly Old Glory proudly/for 19 cents a day”). Bruce Katz burns up the B3 on this. Hook Line and Sinker has a horn vamp (Andy Stahl, tenor sax and Chris DiFrancesco, baritone sax) that reminds of the Otis Redding/Carla Thomas tune Tramp. The guitar work is straight out of Muscle Shoals. O’Leary’s vocals are as strong as most anyone out there. Part Kim Wilson, part Tad Robinson. The title cut (“There’s gonna be some killin’ … /it’s a razor thin line between righteousness and dyin’/ make your mind up quick or you’re gonna die tryin’/things ain’t mentioned in polite conversation/one nation under god ain’t a literal translation…”) is brilliant.
Letters From Home is a slow blues written from a marine’s perspective. (“I’m terrified and lonesome/about a thousand miles away from home/desert wind chills me to the bone/Mail call’s about the only thing keeps a man sane/in this god forsaken combat zone….I need your letters from home.” Again, Vitarello’s guitar work is impressive. The Devil Drove to Town in a V8 Ford is a workout for everyone on board. O’Leary’s writing, here as elsewhere on the disc, is as impressive as the best of Springsteen or any other acknowledged master. Emotive, cinematic. He sings, “Jesus said you got nothing for me/So be gone and tempt me no more/The Devil jumped into his coupe/and started up that V8 Ford.” The Machine showcases his excellent harp work while bemoaning the drudgery of getting by. Walking Contradiction (“throw me to the wolves and just let it all go.”) is hard core Chicago. Harvest Time, with its piano, drum, bass, and horns is the story of a man stealing electricity from his neighbors (“I got a two year plan to get me off the grid.”) and doing “some illegal agriculture when the sun goes down.” The addition of backing vocalist Libby Cabello gives it a cross between church and festival. One More Saturday Night speaks to the fallout from touring (“I gave you all I had and you still walked away … the bad was pretty awful but the good was pretty great”) and spotlights O’Leary’s powerful harp work. Everything works. Strong vocals, a command of the language and muscular harp work. Clearly one of the best releases of 2015. —Mark E. Gallo

Searching for Robert Johnson
by Peter Guralnick
Dutton 1989
Finding Son House, One Searcher’s Story
By Richard Shade Gardner
Self-published 2015
Sadly having missed attending the four day festival honoring seminal Delta bluesman in Rochester, NY, in August 2015, I contented myself with speeding through Gardner’s brief book about his 1980s quest to locate House. Only 60-some pages, excluding appendices, the book can be devoured in a couple of hours.
A blues disc jockey at loose ends in his life, Gardner was enthralled with House’s music, and intrigued to learn that House had lived unrecognized for several decades quite near Gardner in Rochester, having disappeared from the musical limelight after the 1960s folk music revival had temporarily given him professional resurrection. House had a habit of disappearing. A compelling guitarist and haunting and powerful singer, he had abandoned his goal of becoming a preacher for a life instead dominated by liquid spirits. Follower of Charley Patton, compadre of Willie Brown, and profound influence on Robert Johnson, House made some classical recordings in the 1920s and ‘30s, and then vanished until the ‘60s - and then again.
After learning that House was still alive, Gardner resolved to track him, and through diligent effort located him and his wife in Detroit. His subsequent trek to meet the man could have been anticlimactic; in 1981, House was no longer playing or singing and his memory was deficient. Gardner writes, “It was as though Son just inhabited this sterile apartment and didn’t really ‘live’ here, he was just ‘doing time’ in the latter years of his life.” However, he still radiated joy in speaking of the blues.
Gardner’s book, although ostensibly about House, is really more about Gardner himself and the personal meaning of his quest. Reading it stimulated me to re-read Guralnick’s also brief and superficially similar book published a quarter century ago.
A noted musical journalist and historian, Guralnick was fascinated not only by Johnson’s masterful artistry, but also by the mysterious myths, rumors, and legends surrounding the man. Johnson died in 1938, allegedly poisoned by the cuckolded husband of one of his many lovers; Guralnick assiduously tackled Johnson’s life as a saga to be revered as well as a mystery to be solved. The result is a mini-biography that delineates the Delta bluesman’s wanderings and influences and places him in historical context among such other blues giants as House, Patton, Robert Jr. Lockwood, Howlin’ Wolf, and Muddy Waters. Guralnick’s assessments of each of Johnson’s few surviving songs is worth reading and contemplating. Whether you agree with his opinion of individual songs, it’s hard to argue with his assertion that Robert Johnson was one of the foremost progenitors of the blues.— Steve Daniels

Swingin’ On Central Avenue
African American Jazz In Los Angeles
By Peter Vacher

Rowman & Littlefield Publishing Group
From approximately 1920-1960 Central Avenue was ground zero for the African-American community in Los Angeles, with its bustling black jazz and rhythm and blues music scenes. Local luminaries included the likes of Eric Dolphy, Wardell Gray, Johnny Otis (who wrote his own book about the scene titled Upside Your Head! Rhythm and Blues On Central Avenue), Benny Carter, Charlie Mingus, Dexter Gordon, Lionel Hampton, Charlie Parker (briefly but significantly) and Teddy Wilson. All of whom readers of this journal have no doubt heard of because they didn’t mind being on the road a lot and spending time in the recording studio, whereas the jazz musicians dealt with in this fascinating oral history project, to a man (and one woman), never gained “international fame or achieved much more than local celebrity” as author Peter Vacher concisely puts it in his introduction. He continues: “Their recordings were largely low-key and, in some cases, frustratingly few. Most stayed close to home once they had settled in Los Angeles or its surrounding area. Only a handful ever toured Europe more than once or moved regularly beyond California’s confines, although saxophonist Caughey Roberts Jr. did travel to Shanghai, China in the early 1930s and both trumpeter Andy Blakeney and drummer Monk McFay worked in Hawaii for a significant period.” The career paths of these jazz journeymen encompassed Southern territory dance bands, minstrel and circus shows, cabaret and theater orchestras, swing combos and rhythm ‘n’ blues groups as well as New Orleans revivalist music. Theirs are, basically, previously under-documented life stories for only a few were ever interviewed (and never at this length) or with this large amount (25 pages) of accompanying pictorial material. Their memories are also sharp—the sagas and atmospheric detail provided, in their own words, by the likes of the fore-mentioned Monk McFay, multi-instrumentalist “Red Mack” Morris, pianist Chester C. Lane, keyboardist Betty Hall Jones, bassist Billy Hadnott and trombonist “Streamline” Ewing are especially edifying. Along the way, Vacher also takes a close look at Los Angeles’ “covenant” housing situation, Jefferson High School (that produced more jazz musicians and composers than any other school west of the Mississippi), the role of the black musicians union and the comparative disregard of these gifted artists—who lived in a world within a world of ostentatious white nightclubs with black bands, after-hours joints and ghetto clubs that was the result of the migration of black musicians to the West Coast after World War II. A welcome study that goes first-person and behind-the-scenes of a vibrant, colorful jazz community.—Gary von Tersch


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