Every city has at least a couple of restaurants that border on institutions - unpretentious joints that, year after year, continue to serve up equally unpretentious and thoroughly satisfying fare. If you make really, really good burgers, or pizza, or bagels, you might tweak the recipe now and again, but in the end you rely on the time-tested basics that work so well. Little Mike and The Tornadoes' music is a bit like that - predominantly familiar shuffles and twelve bar grinders, meat-and-potatoes stuff free of fancy frills or exotic embellishments, but always thoroughly engaging thanks to polished professionalism and
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Unpretentious, meat-and-potatoes blues done up right
A uplifting celebration of strength and resilience
Judging by The Beautiful Bones, Kelley Hunt's sixth recording to date, she's a pretty irrepressible individual with an endlessly optimistic take on life's journey. The disc is full of positive and inspirational messages and proudly defiant proclamations of strength and independence. Hunt, who plays a mean piano, gets superb support from a fine band, with stellar guitar work in particular from John Jackson. The music itself feels spacious and free, blending blues, gospel, country and soul into an uplifting heartland gumbo. In addition to Jackson's versatile fretwork, alternately shimmering and slashing, the band is top-notch - drummer Bryan Ownings ,
Another masterful set that sheds light of the spiritual side of the blues...
Ronnie Earl is unquestionably one of the most ferociously accomplished blues guitarists around, capable of seemingly endless invention and utterly effortless fluidity. Yet Earl's blues are distinctly different. Whereas most are rooted in earthy carnality - the Saturday night side of the equation - there's a spirituality in Earl's music that seems better suited to Sunday morning. It's music for contemplation, salvation, and redemption rather than cathartic release or sexual braggadocio. That's not to say that Earl can't be as raw and real as anyone out there, and his utter absorption and intensity are legendary. But as someone who's struggled
A righteously raucous roadhouse party from the consummate bar band...
Consummate road warriors The Nighthawks, led by lifer Mark Wenner, may well be the ultimate bar band. Their good-time blend of blues, soul, and rock 'n' roll is a ready-made roadhouse party, a righteously raucous celebration of rootsy Americana. Kicking things off with the rollicking "Walk That Walk," the 'Hawks cruise through the blues (original "Livin' The Blues," "Nothin' But The Blues," and the Muddy Waters' classic "Louisiana Blues," all featuring Wenner's exemplary harp), and rip things up with some rowdy rockabilly ("444 A.M.," hence the disc's title, and "Lot Of Livin,"). Also in the mix are the swampy "Crawfish"
A solid statement from an elder statesman...
If John Mayall's voice sounds just a wee bit creaky here and there on A Special Life, it's only to be expected. He's 80, after all, and this is his umpteenth recording in a career that's seen him touring endlessly for over 60 years. There's absolutely nothing creaky about the music though. Mayall has always known how to pick 'em - as the 'Godfather of British Blues,' he helped launch the careers of Eric Clapton, Peter Green, and Mick Taylor in the UK before moving to California and doing much the same for Coco Montoya and Walter Trout. These days
Toronto's Raoul Bhaneja keeps heady company indeed
Raoul Bhaneja is a busy man indeed. An accomplished actor who's toured his own one-man Hamlet in addition to amassing numerous television credits, he also fronts The Big Time, a tight and agile combo of Canadian veterans able to switch with unerring ease from upbeat swing to down-in-the-alley grinders. Bhaneja has somehow also found time to write songs and absolutely master the harmonica, both the growly, honking diatonic and the richly chorded chromatic, as evidenced throughout the aptly-titled Hollywood Blvd. There's also the matter of the guest list. Bhaneja, a harmonicist of dazzling facility, has made a few friends on
Wayne returns with another breezy and bouncy romp through the blues
Don't look to Kenny 'Blues Boss' Wayne for low-down lonesome blues. There's trouble and hardship, to be sure, but Wayne, a sprightly and optimistic veteran who's been at it since the early 1960's , is too much the happy-go-lucky guy to stay down for long. Wayne also isn't given to tired retreads of the classics. He wrote all of Rollin' With The Blues Boss' eleven tracks, and while he's known as a rollicking pianist, he isn't afraid to toss in some of his own electric piano, Rhodes, and clavinet, as well as banjo, harmonica and horns - not to mention
A contemporary classic from the Dog
The structure and delivery may be as basic as it gets, but the blues is essentially storytelling music. Whether it's hard times and bad luck or an exuberant expression of joy, there has to be a narrative, and a reason. Posing and posturing just won't cut it. Harpdog Brown is a bluesman in the classic style. He understands that the music is about communication, about connecting. He wrote the bulk of the material on What It Is..., most with assistance from drummer and long-time cohort John Hunter. They're solid, well-crafted tunes that sound right at home next to the handful
A raucous and rollicking celebration of old-school R&B
When the term 'R&B' was first coined, the music wasn't that much different from blues, albeit unconfined by twelve-bar convention. More urban, to be sure, but still gritty, raw, and real, it was likely to feature horns rather than harmonica, and favor melody over menacing grooves. It's territory the Chicago-born, Florida-based Terry Hank knows well. He's had a lengthy career honking and squealing on tenor sax, and "Gotta Bring It On Home To You," credited to the Terry Hanck Band And Friends, is a raucous and rollicking celebration of classic R&B. Hanck's list of friends is impressive indeed. In addition
An all-instrumental Harmonica disc? Corritore makes it work!
The harmonica, truth be told, is a relatively easy instrument to play. To master it, however - to render it among the most humanly expressive of instruments - is another matter entirely. Bob Corritore is indeed a master, having honed his craft - craft being the operative word - while working as a club owner, producer, and often-impromptu sideman. In recent years he's stepped up to release a solo collection culled from various sessions, along with two recordings that saw him paired with Chicago stalwarts John Primer and Tail Dragger respectively. Taboo finds Corritore firmly out front, his finely nuanced
Brandon Isaak's sophomore solo album is a low-key affair...
Humans crave an unfolding narrative. We like our stories, and the journey is as important as the destination. It's a lesson that Yukon's Brandon Isaak has learned well. Here On Earth, Isaak's second solo outing, is a delightfully low-key, all-original collection of songs that seem to unfold organically, yarns and tales taken at a relaxed, ambling pace that allows every detail to glisten and every nuance to resonate. It's a quiet affair - primarily Isaak and acoustic guitar, Keith Picot's bass, with bits of harmonica here and there. Isaak's brother Chris produced the disc with an exquisite touch, adding keys
A little uneven, but when Biales and song are suited to each other she's sublime
Lisa Biales has a marvel of a voice - clear and sweet, as pure as mountain air. And when she's matched with the right material, suited to the crystalline delivery she's best at, she's absolutely delightful. Biales has tried her hand at a number of styles over the years. Always rootsy, she's released a children's album and a collection of originals backed by violin and cello. Her last outing, a sunny and buoyant outing with backing from the Paris Blues band, was primarily piano-driven. Here she teams with producers EG Kight and Paul Hornsby for a stab at a more
A time-trip to the Golden Era of Chicago Blues
The 1950's are widely regarded as the golden era of Chicago Blues, a time of staggering creativity that saw the template firmly established. Central to the sound was Chess Records, home to titans like Muddy, Wolf, Sonny Boy Williamson, and Little Walter. The music itself wasn't terribly complicated stuff - some blues standards consist of little more than a repeated riff. And the Chess sound, by contemporary audio standards, is downright primitive. Yet it's raw and real, and still packs a potent punch to this day. It's also a sound that's travelled far and wide. Sugar Brown - real name
An essential addition to the sadly slender recorded legacy of one of the greats
When he passed away of a heart attack in 1969 at the age of 32, Magic Sam had only released two proper albums, including the profoundly influential West Side Soul. (His second full-fledged recording, Black Magic, was released mere days before his death). Since then there have been a handful of posthumous live releases. Live At The Avant Garde, recorded in June 1968, may be the best yet. Despite his tragically short career, Magic Sam left an enduring legacy. A pioneer of the 'west side' sound, his stinging, choked leads and soulful vocals helped to usher in a new era;
A fascinating excursion through all that a banjo can be...
Before the modern Americana movement began to employ it in innovative ways, the banjo was almost exclusively associated with bluegrass music. And without the ability to bend notes, its expressiveness was largely limited to intricate picking and blazing speed. Tony Trischka is one of a handful of players who've dramatically redefined the banjo's capabilities. And on the aptly titled Great Big World, he shows just how versatile an instrument it can be - in the right hands. Bluegrass is certainly an integral element in Trischka's music. But as he himself says of Great Big World, "It's all over the place,
A welcome reissue of a rarity with a handful of previously unreleased tracks.
Delmark Records have always championed the music of the Windy City, seldom recording or releasing much of anything originating outside of Chicago. The result is a virtually all-encompassing catalog of music that has literally spread around the world, yet remains curiously insular, somehow distinctly particular to the city often called 'the home of the blues.' Take John & Sylvia Embry's Troubles, from sessions recorded in 1979 but released here for the first time on CD. Despite notes that take pains to point out that recording was 'old-school,' forgoing modern (in 1979!) studio trickery for an honest audio document of the
A stunning collection of acoustic masterpieces
Not sure quite where to file Steve Dawson's Rattlesnake Cage? Try 'B' for Brilliant. Or Beguiling. Or perhaps 'F' for Fascinating, or 'E' for Endlessly Engaging? The point is, the music on Rattlesnake Cage literally defies categorization. A solo excursion by Dawson, captured spontaneously and presented without overdubs or effects, it's an absolutely dazzling collection of acoustic explorations. Dawson, the man behind the Vancouver-based Black Hen label, is an absolute string wizard. As a producer, he generally graces recordings with subtly tasteful and always evocative contributions on an impressive array of arcane stringed instruments - in addition to all manner
Daddy Long Legs rock the blues up right!
Southwest Ontario-based Daddy Long Legs are unmistakably a blues band. But theirs aren't the blues of yesteryear, time-worn and done to death. They bring a ferocious, punk-inspired energy and rockabilly-rebel spirit to The Devil's In The Details, their fifth recording to date. They call it garage blues, an apt description indeed. It's a raw and raucous sound, with lots of distortion and dirt. "A modern take on retro-vintage," says guitarist and vocalist Mike Elliot, who leads the foursome - Chris 'Junior' Mallick on harmonica, with drummer Jeff Wagner and bassist Steve Toms - through eleven hard-rocking tunes credited collectively to
A harmonica master does it up right ...
Toronto-based Mark 'Bird' Stafford is a harmonica player's player, seemingly capable of just about anything on that smallest of instruments. Here he leads a furiously swinging foursome through a set of standards recorded on a hot July night in Toronto. A traditionalist at heart, Stafford has the uncanny ability to sound like any of the masters who originated the sound, giants of the harmonica like Sonny Boy Williamson, Little Walter, Jimmy Reed, Junior Parker, and Slim Harpo. His tone is rich and full, whether he's playing raw and distorted or piercing and clean. (He uses famed Sonny Jr. Amplifiers, legendary
An absolutely masterful collection that shows how relevant bluegrass can be
Blue Highway aren't the typical bluegrass band. With the original lineup still intact since 1994 - a remarkable achievement in itself - they operate as something of a collective, a five-man 'family' that chooses to remain close to home and hearth. (They don't tour much - as banjo player Jason Burleson says, "We decided early on that we'd rather own our own homes than own a bus together"). Creative input from five individually brilliant musicians could be an unfocussed nightmare. But bluegrass is a rather traditional genre, and if all five respect the tradition while remaining adventurous enough to experiment
An essential collection of Americana
Our world turns quickly, and while he's a seminal figure in the development of the current 'Americana' musical movement, most modern listeners are more likely to be familiar with Doc Watson's name than with his music. There's no shortage of Watson material available, but The Essential Doc Watson is as good a starting place as any. A two-disc set focused primarily on his Vanguard years, with a few tracks from more recent recordings on the Sugar Hill label, it includes representative material from a catalog that spans the entire spectrum of early American music. By current standards, Watson was virtually
A fine collection rooted in a worldly wisdom
One More Highway is a fitting title indeed for Bob Menzies' second recording. An inveterate wanderer who's learned his share of life's lessons on treks that have taken him around the globe, he remains a restless spirit. Many of the songs on One More Highway deal with the theme of travel, whether literal or metaphorical. Menzies' music would probably best be described as folk-rock, but the blues and good ol' rock 'n' roll are evident as well. Don't call it Americana, though - Menzies was born in Holland, raised in Montreal, and has worked in Germany, London, and California. So
Stone country done the bluegrass way ...
"Three chords and the truth" is how famed songwriter Harlan Howard described country music. It's a little more complicated than that - artifice plays it's part in any popular genre - but as in all art, the stuff that endures seems to hold a nugget of truth larger than our own experience - something, indeed, that connects us in our joy and our (more often in country) grief. James King's latest collection, Three Chords And The Truth, features a dozen stone country classics - some standards, some a bit more obscure - done in pure bluegrass fashion. That means no
Old school done the old school way ...
Kingsville Jukin' is the third of Studebaker John's collections exploring the golden years of Chicago blues. As with 2010's That's The Way You Do and 2012's aptly-named Old School Rockin,' John's quest for authenticity - the way it was done on the Windy City's famed Maxwell Street back in the day - results in a collection that packs a viciously visceral punch. First, the backstory - yes, John (real name John Grimaldi) really does drive a Studebaker (formerly a Lark, currently a 1963 Silver Hawk). And yes, he did come up on famed Maxwell Street, site of Chicago's gritty, open-air
The good stuff doesn't need to change ...
Delmark Records have long been the torch-bearer for classic Chicago blues. True, the template doesn't vary much - Stop Lyin,' the latest result from Delmark's vault-dipping, comes from sessions in September of 1982, but sounds as though it could easily have been recorded in any decade from the 50's to the present. But while 'timeless' has become a bit of a cliché, that's exactly what this music is - basic, meat-and-potatoes blues. No frills, nothing fancy. But it works, as well today as it ever has, thanks to the sheer conviction and commitment of all involved. The band, all stalwarts,
Another quietly masterful outing from Theesink
If there's anything quieter than Hans Theesink song, it's silence itself. An exaggeration, perhaps, but not by much; Theesink, a veteran who's devoted much of his life to exploring blues and roots music, favors a muted, subdued delivery, both in his intricate yet delicate guitar work (he employs a veritable arsenal of stringed instruments) and his supremely relaxed vocals. Originally from The Netherlands, Theesink is currently based in Vienna, where this collection was recorded. The playlist includes a number of tunes from 'Americana 101' - standards like "Wayfaring Stranger," "Make Me Down A Pallet On Your Floor," and "Delia" are
With a band like this, Dangerous is a can't-miss proposition
If you're at all familiar with the Delta Groove label - home to, among others, the Mannish Boys, the fluid aggregation Sugaray Rayford has been fronting for some time now - you'll know roughly what to expect from Dangerous. Delta Groove production is usually brassy and ballsy, and label honcho Randy Chortkoff - in addition to contributing harmonica to three tracks, he's listed as Executive Producer and Co-Producer - likes to mix things up with an extensive guest list - in addition to Rayford and Chortkoff, credits list no fewer than fourteen additional musicians. The thing is, though, that every
It seems nothing and keep Candye Kane down ...
It seems nothing can keep Candye Kane down. Her back story is remarkable - abused teenager, sex-trade worker, cancer survivor - yet there's an undeniable joy in her music that comes through loud and clear on Come Out Swinging. (An earlier album was called "Toughest Girl Alive" and spawned a stage play). Working once again with musical foil / guitarist Laura Chavez, Kane delivers a - forgive the cliché - knockout collection. The title track sets the pace, swinging furiously and featuring fleet guitar, muted trumpets, and a jungle-drum breakdown. And that jazzy-jump-blues feel predominates; though Kane does have her
J. T. Lauritsen's music, in the end, just feels good.
When in his native Norway, J. T. Lauritsen leads a band he calls The Buckshot Hunters. They're here, from sessions cut in Norway, but for Play By The Rules, Lauritsen also travelled to famed Ardent Studios in Memphis, recruiting a dazzling array of friends for additional sessions resulting in five of the disc's dozen tracks. Despite a diverse cast and the obvious geographical disparity, though, there's a pleasing consistency to proceedings. Lauritsen cheerfully mixes genres, anyway, seamlessly blending blues, soul, and zydeco, every player's contribution, regardless of studio, is absolutely spot-on, and having it all mixed and mastered at Ardent
Gabriel calls on old friend Duke Robillard for a romp through (mostly) familiar territory
The ever-prolific Duke Robillard - the go-to producer for swing and jump blues artists seeking a professional sheen - puts his stamp firmly on Paul Gabriel's solo debut, What's The Chance. And that, as usual, is a very good thing indeed. Gabriel, an old friend of Robillard's (the two met in the early 70's), often treads the same territory as Duke at his swinging best, and with Duke's own band and first-call friends adding additional support to an already supple combo, the sound is frequently familiar. Much of the fare - Gabriel who wrote all but two of the tracks
Bell returns to the blues
Lurrie Bell's last outing, 2012's Devil Ain't Got No Music, saw him turning to his gospel roots, the results an absolutely riveting collection. An all-acoustic, primarily solo effort, the intimacy put his gruff vocals and stinging guitar in stark relief. Blues In My Soul marks Bell's return to the Chicago's venerable Delmark label as well as a return to hard-core urban blues. The results are typically stellar - Bell, son of the late harmonica master and blues icon Carey Bell, is as steeped in the blues as anyone alive, and he's seemingly incapable of a less-than-sublimely soulful performance. He's a
Lee's latest is a bit of a departure but one of his strongest collections yet
New Orleans institution Bryan Lee - though originally from Wisconsin, he's spent enough years on Bourbon Street to qualify as a fixture - would seem to be a producer's dream, flexible enough to adapt to any setting and convey any mood. Lee's last outing, produced by Duke Robillard and featuring Duke's band in the background, found him swinging hard through a collection weighted toward jump blues and rollicking rock 'n' roll. On Play One For Me, his debut on Severn Records, he alternates between slinky, uptown blues and shimmery Memphis soul, the kind that's become something of a signature sound
Two posthumous tributes to singular talents
Chances are that Gary Primich and O.V. Wright's paths never crossed - certainly not musically, at any rate. In ways they're vastly different. Gary Primich, who passed in 2007, was known for tough, working class blues driven by his probing, inventive harmonica work and featuring whip-smart songwriting. Overton Vertis White (1939-1980), revered as one of the deepest of the classic deep-soul singers, spent most of his time on the Chitlin' Circuit. He died of a heart attack en route to a gig, in the presence of Rawls, at that time Wright's musical director. Rawls, who's always been forthright in
Mark T.Small's Smokin' Blues brings familiar classics to vibrant life
Mark T. Small explains in the liner notes to Smokin' Blues that he's "a live player, not a studio guy." His intent with this release was to replicate the experience of hearing him perform in an intimate setting, with the connection between performer and listener very much a part of proceedings. Small has been a performing musician for over forty years. Initially a fan of 'old time music' - folk and ragtime and, yes, the blues - he started out playing 'newgrass,' a catch-all name for adventurous music that expands upon traditional bluegrass. Delving deeper into the blues, he subsequently
A fine and funky outing featuring absolutely sublime vocals
Making My Mark proves an apt title indeed for the debut recording from Annika Chambers. Possessed of a powerhouse set of pipes, she's firmly in control through a varied set that ranges from self-penned declarations of defiant intent (opening manifesto "Move") to affirmative anthems of soul-searing regret (Bobby Charles' classic "Jealous Kind"). Chambers' command of the considerable resources on hand here should come as no surprise given her background. Rising to the rank of Sergeant in the US Army (including deployments to both Afghanistan and Kosovo), she left to pursue her musical dreams, and as of the release of her
No surprises, but it's as raw and real as it gets ...
New York-based Little Mike And The Tornadoes first came to prominence as the backing band for a pair of 1980's recordings by Pinetop Perkins (1988's After Hours) and Hubert Sumlin (1989's Heart And Soul). A few scattered recordings have since followed, but Forgive Me is the band's first new recording in quite some time. The template hasn't changed much - hard-driving twelve-bar grinders and belly-rubbers predominate, though there are a couple of original compositions that avoid cliché quite nicely. It's music that achieves greatness through the sum of its parts rather than individual instrumental excellence. Mike himself is no slouch,
it simply doesn't get much better...
As a teenage runaway in New York's Greenwich Village, an impressionable Rory Block had the rather exceptional good fortune of meeting a number of blues giants in the process of being 'rediscovered' during the so-called blues revival of the 60's. Block has never forgotten the lessons she learned, and she's subsequently carved out respectable career as an acoustic blues artist, with some twenty-nine recordings to her credit. Avalon is the fourth in her 'mentor' series, tributes to the masters she met as a youngster. The focus this time out is on Mississippi John Hurt, and as with all of her
Can the blues be 'romantic'???
There's a widespread misperception that the blues are all about heartbreak and misery. The truth is that blues can be as celebratory and joyous as any other form of music. The blues can be raw and visceral, sure, but there's also room for jump and swing. Rarely, however, would one describe the blues as 'romantic.' Enter Gina Sicilia and her latest, It Wasn't Real. While by no means a pure blues recording, it all seems firmly rooted in that most fertile of soil. Sicila's songs - she wrote all but one here - straddle the line between blues and pop
There are no better words than Lisa Biales' own to capture just how wonderfully jubilant is Singing In My Soul , the eighth independent release from the Ohio-based singer and guitarist ... "I love working with musicians who give themselves over completely to a song, and who play with joy. Here's to you, my Jolly Goodfellows," says Biales in the liner notes. They're the words of a warm and generous spirit, qualities that emanate from every note of the Singing In My Soul. The Goodfellows that Biales refers to include Cincinnati's Ricky Nye on keys, along with the Paris Blues
It's hard to go wrong with a guy like Duke Robillard producing a project - especially when it's Duke's working band, one of the tightest and tastiest ensembles around, providing the backing. Andy Poxon, he of the shockingly red afro (a signature look), is young, and doesn't look at all like the typical bluesman. Yet there's a remarkable maturity to his writing, his playing, and his singing - as Duke himself says in the liner notes, he's "a complete and mature musician at the ripe old age of eighteen years old." Blues really isn't kid stuff, and most players, however
A band on the rise...
It didn't take long for Toronto-based Scott McCord And The Bonafied Truth to make their mark; their very first gig won them top prize in the Toronto Blues Society's New Talent Search in 2008. Numerous awards and accolades have followed, and now they've released their self-titled sophomore effort. Promotional materials liken the band to Southside Johnny and the Asbury Dukes, and it's an apt comparison; big, bold, and brassy, The Bonafied Truth tread much the same territory. It's all based, at least loosely, on the blues, but there's lots of soul and rock 'n' roll in the mix as well,
Memphis is widely considered a musical mecca, one of those places where music seems to seep out of the very ground itself. But there's always been a strong blues seen in sunny California, too, with such seminal influences as T-Bone Walker, Pee Wee Crayton, and Johnny 'Guitar' Watson establishing the swinging template of what's become known as the 'West Coast Sound,' carried forward into the present by such stalwarts as Rod Piazza's Might Flyers (an obvious influence here) and the late William Clarke, Formed in 2007 by vocalist Tom 'Big Son' Eliff and guitarist Mitch 'The Switch' Dow, southern California-based
A likeably old-timey romp
Brad Vickers and the Vestapolitans' previous release, 2011's Traveling Fool, was an exuberant romp through America's musical roots, touching on everything from blues to ragtime to flat-out rock 'n' roll. This time out the feel leans more to the old-timey, with Vickers' musical foil, Margey Peters, taking a more prominent role as fiddler and vocalist. The results are engaging enough, but a casual approach to vocals that occasionally borders on lackluster - Peters' isn't a terribly strong singer - robs the project of vitality. Things kick off nicely enough with "Little Gem," honking horns and handclaps driving things along, but
A loving tribute and a fascinating look back
It's hard to believe now, but there was a time when blues all but disappeared. Indeed, it was thanks to the dedication and perseverance of people like Alan Wilson that led to the 'blues revival' of the early sixties, when young white enthusiasts took to tracking down all-but-forgotten legends. Wilson - nicknamed 'Blind Owl' by John Fahey due severe shortsightedness - didn't exactly fit the standard description of a bluesman. Slight and painfully shy, he nonetheless possessed an uncanny feel for the music, bringing to it an adventurous spirit in keeping with the times - Wilson passed away in 1970,
'Traditional' doesn't get much better
Most would agree that the 1950's were the golden era of Chicago blues, when giants such as Muddy, Wolf, and Willie Dixon established the template - an ensemble sound, usually two guitars, harmonica and piano over bedrock bass and drums, dirty and distorted and loud enough to cut through a raucous and rowdy nightclub. It's not the most varied or variable of formats, but when done right it's nothing short of magnificent. There's a carnal ferocity and an elemental sexuality to the music itself, and at its best the parts form a seamless and seemingly unstoppable force. It's also deceptive
A departure, yes, but a thoroughly satisfying recording
Anyone familiar with the long and storied career of The Fabulous Thunderbirds will no doubt have certain expectations. Despite constant lineup changes over almost forty(!!!) years - founder/frontman Kim Wilson is the only original member left - they've been known primarily for swaggering, Texas blues and roadhouse rock 'n' roll. On The Verge is a significant departure from the T-Birds' sound. With burbling rhythms, lots of layered horns and shimmering rhythm guitars, there's more soul and old-school R&B than blues, with very little of Wilson's trademark harmonica to be found. Indeed, much of the swagger is dispensed with in the
Jump and swing done just right
You may have heard Big Papa And The TCB without knowing it. Their song "Go Big Papa" has been featured in a national advertising campaign for Papa John's Pizza, including airplay during the Superbowl. Six Pack Of Cool is the band's fifth release, and a fine collection of jump and swing blues it is. Led by guitarist and vocalist Chris 'Big Papa' Thayer, the six-piece ensemble (hence the title) romp and snort through thirteen tunes with unbridled energy and enthusiastically engaging performances. Indeed, from opener "Papa's In The House" to the collection's second-last track, the furiously upbeat instrumental "Showtime," there's
Robillard's latest is a bit of a mixed bag
The ever-prolific Duke Robillard typically veers from themed collections - whether collaborations, tributes, or periodic 'back to the blues' outings - to more eclectic outings that find him exploring his various musical interests and influences. Independently Blue, Robillard's 30th recording as leader (he has far too many sideman and producer credits to count), falls somewhere in the middle. Everything's rooted in blues, but Duke and friends - this time including guitarist Monster Mike Welch in addition to Robillard's regular band - are doggedly determined to find the freshness in it all rather than simply reheat things yet again. Robillard's taste
Earl's guitar work is both spiritual and sublime
His is hardly a household name, but most blues fans will have encountered Ronnie Earl by now. As an instrumental purist who seldom tours, though, it seems unlikely his profile will extend much beyond the blue end of the spectrum anytime soon. Which is a pity. Celebrating the twenty-fifth year of Earl's Broadcasters, Just For Today, Earl's seventh recording for Edmonton-based Stony Plain records, is so much more than a blues album. True, there are a bunch of blues songs, along with a bit of jazz and a healthy dose of gospel. But Earl's playing is of a level and
Elegant and effervescent, Hamilton's Remembering Billie is a quiet masterpiece.
The saxophone has something of a split personality - soothing and romantic on one hand, raunchy and raw - think honking R&B - on the other. In the magical hands of Scott Hamilton, it's the personification of musical elegance, the aural equivalent of candlelight and wine. Here Hamilton, a veteran with over forty recordings on the venerable Concord label, including fifteen in fifteen years with Rosemary Clooney, turns his attention to songs associated with Billie Holiday. Produced by guitarist extraordinaire Duke Robillard (who contributes acoustic archtop to a pair), the focus is primarily on Holiday's earlier years when there was
An old-school masterpiece from the son of a giant ...
If Big Bill Morganfield's last name sounds familiar, there's a reason; his father, McKinley Morganfield - better known to the world as Muddy Waters - is one of the leading architects of post-war blues, a true titan of twentieth century music. Big shoes to fill indeed, but Big Bill has, since his Blind Pig debut in 1999, consistently delivered well-crafted recordings that do his dad's legacy proud while showing ongoing growth as an artist in his own right. His latest, Blues With A Mood, on his own Black Shuck label, is nothing less than an old-school masterpiece. The territory is
Antonik's sophomore outing is an early contender for the year's best lists
Toronto-based Chris Antonik seemed to come out of nowhere with his remarkably assured 2010 debut. Now he's back with a follow up that's nothing short of an amazing artistic leap. Better For You retains the blue core that informed his earlier effort, but here Antonik expands his palette significantly. Things start out impressively enough with "Long Way To Go," a bluesy number with Antonik's gruff vocals over a chunky rhythm accented with squalling harp and punchy horns. But "Turn To Shine," the second track, is southern rock with a hint of Memphis soul and a whiff of gospel, not too
A quirky but endlessly fascinating collection
Guitarist extraordinaire Kevin Breit has a reputation for the quirky and cerebral. As an in-demand session player he's recorded with the likes of Norah Jones, Roseanne Cash, and k. d. lang. As a member of various groups of his own (Sisters Euclid, Folk Alarm) he's got well over a dozen recordings under his belt, as well as three solo outings under his own name. In short, Breit is widely regarded as a guitarist's guitarist, the kind who can utterly dazzle and confound while making it all seem effortless. So his latest project comes as that much more of a surprise.
A master class in supple, simmering blues
As blues recordings go, this one's pretty much the equivalent of a superstar session. The 4 Jacks are guitarist Anson Funderburgh, drummer/vocalist Big Joe Maher, pianist/organist Kevin McKendree, and bassist Steve Mackey. The names will be familiar to most blues fans. Funderburgh, the lean and laconic Texan, has led his Rockets for over 30 years. D.C.-based Big Joe Maher has numerous recordings with his Dynaflows, and Kevin McKendree has served as Delbert McClinton's band leader for years. Steve Mackey, an in-demand session player based in Nashville, has also worked with McClinton as well as countless others. Recorded at McKendree's studio
A solid collection of blaues-based roots-rock
The Mike Eldred Trio's 61 / 49 is named for a famed crossroads, mythical places in the lore of the blues. But guitarist/vocalist Eldred, backed by the Blasters' rhythm section of bassist John Bazz and drummer Jerry Angel, is a roots rocker at heart, and musically the collection has the feel of the wide-open spaces of the west. Eldred's may not be a familiar name to many, but he's got some high-profile guests on hand to help out, including guitarists Scotty Moore(!), Kid Ramos, and Los Lobos' Cesar Rosa. Ike Turner contributes piano on a track, Riley Osborne is on
Lots of personality makes this one a winner ...
As a bluesman, Robert 'Top' Thomas has a solid background and impressive credentials. He's been grinding out swamp-blues in his native Florida for years, touring and recording with the likes of Noble 'Thin Man' Watts, Lazy Lester, and Bill 'Sauce Boss' Wharton in addition to helping found SmokeHouse, a band that helped define the swampy sound mixed with hints of the Delta that's pervasive throughout The Town Crier. Lazy Lester in particular seems a profound influence - in addition to a note of thanks in the liner notes, Thomas covers Lester's "The Same Thing Could Happen To You," the only
An impressive debut indeed!
Newcomer Kevin Selfe, until now little known outside his native Virginia (he's from Roanoke) and his adopted Portland, shows a great deal of promise on Long Walk Home, his Delta Groove debut. An all-original collection, Selfe's compositions are primarily founded on the sturdy building blocks of the blues. From the wryly clever, easy-going backward-shuffle of "Duct Tape On My Soul" to the shivery minor-key anguish of "Dancing Girl," from the T-Bone-tasty "Moving Day Blues" to the frenzied slide-driven boogie of "Put Me Back In Jail," Selfe manages to mix and match various styles while maintaining a distinctive sound. Selfe isn't
An excellent debut that meets every expectation
There it is, right on the cover - 'featuring Anson Funderburgh.' Given that the lanky and laconic Texas guitarist also produced and plays on a handful of tracks, the debut from the Andy T - Nick Nixon Band arrives with high expectations. Fortunately, Drink Drank Drunk delivers, and then some. Andy Talamantez met Funderburgh first, the two becoming fast friends as their paths crossed through the years. Following extended stints with Smokey Wilson and Guitar Shorty, the California native moved to Nashville, where initially casual gigs with Nick Nixon soon evolved into an enduring musical partnership. Funderburgh must have experienced
Songs of love and life that sound lived and not just observed...
In the sixties and into the early seventies, the travelling life of a vagabond was a dream shared by many baby boomers. Now based in Toronto, Bob Menzies actually lived that dream, making his way around the world by thumb, boxcar, and freighter. He worked in Sudbury’s nickel mines and alongside migrant pickers in the fields of California. He’s been to Morocco, Norway, Greece and France, and lived and worked in Germany and England, all during a turbulent time when music genuinely had the power, if not to change the world, then at least to profoundly influence the people in
Mischo’s Delta Groove debut finds the Minnesota-based harmonica master as exuberant and inventive as ever
RJ Mischo is a musician whose abilities on his instrument can be utterly mind-boggling. But Mischo’s instrument is the harmonica, and his chosen genre (though many would say the music chooses the man) is the blues. World-wide fame and untold riches seem unlikely; to quote Fats Domino, “Ain’t that a shame …” For his tenth recording Mischo’s gone for a raw, raucous sound, his harp tone dirty and distorted and many of his vocals the same. Most tunes feature a full band consisting of guitarists Johnny Moeller and the late and sadly missed Nick Curran, with veterans Wes Starr on
An absolutely top-notch collection of hardcore Chicago blues
Vocalist Tail Dragger – more on that name a bit later - and harmonica ace Bob Corritore first met at a tribute to Howlin’ Wolf a day after the blues titan’s death back in 1976. They’ve been friends and occasional musical accomplices ever since, but this is their first outing as co-leaders of a band. Legend has it Tail Dragger – real name James T. Jones – got his moniker from Wolf himself, who complained that Jones was always ‘dragging his tail in late.’ Earlier in his career he came across as a bit of a Wolf imitator, but he’s
A little bit ragged and a whole lot righteous …!
Like so many musical fads, the so-called ‘neo-soul’ revival seems to have receded once more from mainstream attention. That doesn’t appear to faze Julius Pittman and his crackerjack crew – they play gloriously greasy and boldly brassy soul as though it’s never gone out of style. Pittman, a monster on both piano and organ, is possessed of the perfect soul voice, raspy and rough and bursting with passion. When he testifies – and testify is the right word, as there’s a genuine gospel fervor at work here – he leaves absolutely no doubt that he means every word. Live Tonight,
Americana by way of a hot, sweaty roadhouse
The term ‘Americana’ usually conjures up acoustic instruments – guitar, banjo, fiddle – and music that sounds as though it should be barefoot on the back porch. The 44’s have a different take on Americana – theirs is sweaty, roadhouse music, raucous and raunchy and meant to be played loud to cut through the haze and the noise. It’s tough and swaggering and dangerous, best served where there’s lots of both cold beer and room to dance. The 44’s – guitarist and vocalist Johnny Main, drummer J. R. Lozano, bassist Mike Turturro, with Tex “The Weeping Willow” Nakamura on harmonica
This is how it’s done …
The Mannish Boys have become, over the course of six recordings now, a genuine blues powerhouse. A supergroup of sorts, they’ve always been a review-style band, with a rotating cast and more guests than one can shake a stick at. It helps that the guests are chosen from Delta Groove’s rather impressive roster; the Mannish Boys are led by label honcho and ace harmonica player Randy Chortkoff. The remainder of the core band includes mainstay Finis Tasby and newcomer Sugaray Rayford sharing vocals, with Chortkoff on harp, Kirk Fletcher and Frank Goldwasser on guitars, and the rock-solid core of drummer
When Lacocque’s well-oiled Mississippi Heat hits, the results are sublime
Much like the musical reviews of old, Mississippi Heat is a fluid and constantly changing musical collective. Each recording features a core band led by Pierre Lacocque, usually with a slightly different lineup from project to project, with a series of guests to add vocal and instrumental variety. On hand this time out are regular vocalist Inetta Visor, with guitarists Giles Corey and Billy Satterfield, bassist Joseph Velez and Kenny Smith on drums. Keys are shared by Chris ‘Hambone’ Cameron and Johnny Iguana. The guest list includes guitarists Billy Flynn and frequent collaborator Carl Weathersby, Chubby Carrier adding Cajun
Old school done right...
Don’t have a copy of Big Pete’s Choice Cuts as yet? Then do this: go to the loneliest railroad crossing you can find on a dark, dark night. Stand as close to the tracks as you dare (safely, please) until a roaring freight train overwhelms your senses with sheer, unstoppable, ground-shaking power. That’ll give you a feel for what Big Pete’s amplified harmonica sounds like - dirty and dangerous, gloriously greasy and magnificently muscular. Pieter “Big Pete” Van Der Pluum’ isn’t the typical blues background; he’s Dutch (as one might guess, with a name like that), and lucked into this
The Flyers live up to their new “All Mighty” billing
After many years and countless gigs, Rod Piazza’s got himself a new band. The core players are back, of course – Miss Honey on piano, guitarist Henry Carvajal, and drummer Dave Kida – but this time out, rather than The Mighty Flyers, they’re billed as “The All Mighty Flyers.” It’s an important, if small, distinction. As one of the harmonica’s greatest virtuosos, Rod remains up front. But there’s a real band feel to this outing, albeit with lots of guests along for the ride. It’s primarily a covers collection – Piazza only wrote two of the dozen tracks – and
Holiday music hot enough to light a few yuletide (and other) fires …
Canada’s David Gogo – he’s from Vancouver Island, one of the more isolated (and least urban) of the vast nation’s urban areas – is primarily known as a prodigiously talented blues rocker. This being a collection that celebrates a time of good cheer – or not, given this is, after all, Christmas With The Blues – Gogo here eschews his usual aggressive attack for a lean, clean take on some holiday surprises, with a handful of originals to help make his Christmas parcel distinct from the rest. That’s not to say Gogo’s lost his bite – there’s still a
There’s a reason why the classics endure …
Great art endures. There’s a reason people still listen to Beethoven and Bach, and time is proving that the classic sound of Chicago blues is a potent and lasting artistic force as well. Willie Buck’s been cranking out unpretentious, meat-and-potatoes Chicago blues since arriving in the Windy City in ’53. To say he’s a Muddy Waters disciple is an understatement – Muddy’s songs have always formed much of his repertoire, and Buck’s originals borrow heavily. Many of his mannerisms are uncannily like Muddy’s, and while his voice isn’t quite as commanding, his phrasing is often remarkably similar. But the sheer
An Americana take on Christmas that's both spectacle and warmly intimate
No one does spectacle quite like the Americans. Who else would take simple fiddle tunes, the kind of stuff that seems most at home barefoot on the back porch, and surround ‘em with so many musicians it takes an entire page to list them all? And yet it works –A Fiddler’s Holiday is both exquisitely tasteful and extravagantly lavish, and deeply moving despite some rather obvious tugging on the heartstrings. Jay Ungar gained fame when his “Ashoken Farewell,” a bittersweet fiddle instrumental that sounds exactly like homesickness feels, became the recurrent theme music on Ken Burns’ PBS Series on the
Tired of ‘Americana’ yet? Vickers and friends will change that!
As a genre, the notion of ‘Americana’ – rootsy music that begins with folk but encompasses every indigenous format from blues and ragtime to country and good ol’ rock and roll – is in danger of becoming a tired cliché. What else, though, to call a collection that ranges from hokum to honking rhythm & blues, countrified rock ‘n’ roll to a rockabilly rave-up? As the bassist for New York-based Little Mike And The Tornadoes, Brad Vickers recorded with Pinetop Perkins, Hubert Sumlin, and James Cotton while all three were on the Blind Pig label back in the 80’s. He
Some things never go out of style …
Given the time span represented here – as the title says, 25 years of rock ‘n’ roll - there’s an ongoing consistency to everything here. And that’s as it should be, of course. The Bopcats, part of the original rockabilly revival of the seventies, have been churning out their hard-driving mix of raucous blues and country-tinged, overheated blues and rock ‘n’ roll ever since. The sonics have been cleaned up as part of the re-mastering process – these recordings are culled from various sessions beginning in 1984 – but some were taken from demo-quality vinyl and tape recordings so there’s
Haunting and harrowing and about as real as it gets …
The definition of just what blues is can be surprisingly elastic.They can just as easily be a punctuated by celebratory whoops as mournful cries, and can be thoroughly ‘legitimate’ coming from a hard-driving big band, with raucous beats designed specifically for dancing. But few would argue that When My Mama Was Living, a posthumous release from Louisiana Red (he passed in 2012, as noted in the collection’s subtitle) is about as real as the blues gets. Recorded primarily over two sessions in the mid-seventies, Red (real name Iverson Minter) is joined on a handful by Peg Leg Sam on harp
A delightful – and international - romp through Americana
This is one of those delightful surprises that remind us why some of us are music obsessives, forever searching for the fresh and the exciting, for that unique, individual voice. Otmar Binder is Dutch, Boogie Woogie Turnaround was recorded in Austria, and every tune, despite being written or co-written by Binder and fellow Dutchman Christian Dozzler or English pedal-steel master BJ Cole, is distinctly American in character. Yet while Boogie Woogie Turnaround is supremely respectful of the music that caught Binder’s ears when his father brought home a 1978 disc by the “Mojo Blues Band,” Binder and friends – particularly
Standards, yes, but not the tired same-old-same-old batch …
Shepherd refers to this as a pre-motherhood (recorded while Shepherd was pregnant with her first child) ‘standards’ disc, but this is no lazy stroll through the Great American Songbook. True, the collection kicks off with Cole Porter’s “Love For Sale,” hardly an under-recorded ditty. But Shepherd also includes Georges Brassens’ “Les Amoureux Des Banc Publics” and the Gershwin’s seldom-heard “Buzzard Song,” a tune that George himself often excised from “Porgy And Bess.” It’s an intriguing playlist – also on hand are a lovely voice-and-guitar “Poinciana,” Cannonball Adderly’s “Sack Of Woe,” and Kurt Weill’s devastating “Lonely House,” none of them exactly
Sometimes it’s worth the wait.
Chicago-based Delmark Records have always been known as a blues label with a strong side of jazz. Of late, though, the hard-core blues they’ve been recording has been liberally sprinkled with Northern Soul. Been There Done That is an apt title for the label debut (there have been a handful of independent productions) of Linsey Alexander, released 70 years(!) after the guitarist’s birth in Holly Springs, Mississippi. Following a move to Memphis at the age of twelve, young Alexander, a budding guitarist, found himself immersed in blues, country, and rock ‘n’ roll. Subsequently migrating to Chicago while the West-side scene
A quietly unassuming celebration of Americana
Some of the greatest champions of ‘Americana’ aren’t American at all; Dutch guitarist/singer/songwriter Hans Theessink has spent his entire career – some 40-odd years on the road, with more than twenty recordings – celebrating American roots music. On Delta Time, he teams up with Terry Evans, a deep soul/blues singer best known for his work with Ry Cooder, for an immaculately performed, if a little sleepy, set of blues, soul, and gospel gems. With a handful of originals fitting seamlessly into a playlist that includes The Delmore Brothers’ “Blues Stay Away From Me,” Jimmy Reed’s “Honest I Do,” and the
James reminds us that personality is an essential element in soul
Nowadays, with pitch-perfect performances the expected norm, most singers are auto-tuned beyond any trace of actual personality. They may sound great – once – on the radio, but there’s simply nothing human there to form a connection to, and as a result the singer and the songs tend to be both interchangeable and disposable. Marion James is a soul singer in the classic sense. She’s not technically perfect by any means, and her voice has a distinct, almost slurry quality to it – flawless articulation isn’t her strong suit. But soul isn’t about enunciation – it’s all about conveying feel
Blue redefines the harmonica’s (and human) capabilities
For better or worse, Sugar Blue will forever be known as the guy who contributed the remarkable harmonica to the Rolling Stones’ 1978 smash hit “Miss You.” But despite the buzz and subsequent renown, Blue (real name James Whiting) has never really broken out as leader – born in New York but based for many years in Paris, a handful of releases on European labels failed to stir much interest in North America, and even a pair on venerable Alligator Records failed to reach a wide audience. Raw Sugar Live – a two-disc set showcasing Blue as leader – shows
A blues outing that doesn’t sound like every other blues outing
Corey Lueck has a voice that seems custom-made for the blues –a bit gritty, a lot raspy, with just a hint of sweetness around the edges to make it all palatable. It Ain’t Easy finds Corey stepping up front as leader of the Smoke Wagon Blues Band for the first time. (Together since 1997, the band has four previous recordings under its collective belt, the first three released independently). It makes sense, given it’s largely Lueck’s voice and distinctive harmonica that defines the band’s sound, and he has co-writing credits (most with guitarist Mike Stubbs) on all but the disc’s
A loving but absolutely swinging tribute to one of music’s most iconic voices
A tribute album released before the concept of tribute albums became a tired cliché, Ranee Lee’s Deep Song, her homage to Billie Holiday, benefits greatly from an expanded re-release on Montreal-based Justin Time records. Deep Song is an utterly superb collection of Holiday classics, with stellar performances from Lee and an exemplary band featuring pianist Oliver Jones. Recorded in the early days of digital – it was originally released in 1989 – the sound on the initial release was crystal clear but lacked the warmth of analogue production, a common complaint at the time. Here the remastering brings a significantly
A wonderful collection brimming with personality
If there were ever any questions about Liz Mandeville’s blues credentials (and there shouldn’t be), consider this – Clarksdale, her debut on her own Blue Kitty label, features the very last recordings of the legendary Willie ‘Big Eyes’ Smith on both harp and drums. Indeed, it was Smith, a close friend, who encouraged Mandeville to launch her label, and plans for a follow up were in the works at the time of Smith’s passing. Also on hand to help out on a track each are the equally legendary Eddie Shaw on sax and guitarist Nick Moss, a modern-day blues powerhouse
Blues vets make it all sound (deceptively) easy
Li’l Ronnie is the consummate modern bluesman, a journeyman dedicated to his craft and devoted to the classic sound and undeniable power of a hard-driving blues band. With Gotta Strange Feeling, he delivers another collection of strong originals, most composed with the help of guitarist and long-time musical foil Ivan Appelrouth, with a couple of cool covers thrown in for good measure. Owens is a harmonica player in the old-school style, more concerned with the sheer forceful sound of the amplified harp rather than dazzling displays of dexterity. Appelrouth proves an ideal accompanist, he too favoring subtle, tasteful licks that
A welcome reissue that shows Loren has everything it takes ...
Aspiring jazz singers face a crowded field, and it’s hard to make an impression when so much of the standard material has been done to death. Halie Loren, still a relative youngster in a field that values artistic experience but doesn’t object to a bit of sex appeal, has everything it takes to be a major star. Her most recent outing, 2012’s Heart First, was an intimate and engaging exploration of romance and love both won and lost. Stages, her only live recording to date, was recorded at two shows in 2009 and is here re-released by Montreal-based Justin Time
Despite the title, more soul than blues from McCormick
Chicago is known as a blues town, indeed often referred to as ‘the home of the blues.’ Yet there’s a vibrant ‘sub-strata’ of soul-blues artists with a definable sound that simply doesn’t get as much press. Quintus McCormick is based in Chicago, and while much of his material avoids twelve-bar cliché, he never strays too far from the blue end of the spectrum – it might be equal parts soul, but as the title has it, it’s Still Called The Blues. McCormick’s third outing for venerable Delmark Records, this is a finely crafted collection with (mostly) strong material and fine
Heart First is lighthearted and fun!
Jazz can be a pretty serious business. It has, after all, been called “America’s classical music,” a genuinely indigenous art form, with the emphasis on‘art.’ But at its best, there’s a sense of playful possibility about the music, too. Indeed, without a little ‘jazz’ in the music, Jazz-as-art-form becomes a cerebral exercise more to be admired than enjoyed. Enter up-and-comer Halie Loren, with a delightfully insouciant approach to a handful of chestnuts that brings tired old warhorses (“All Of Me,” “Taking A Chance On Love,” Charlie Chaplin’s “Smile”) to intriguing life. Heart First is Loren’s fourth full-length recording, the first
Another quietly unassuming masterpiece from Canada
Montreal-based Dale Boyle’s Throwback, his fourth outing as a solo artist, is yet another quietly unassuming collection of thoughtful originals and well-chosen covers. It’s impeccably played and the recorded sound has a breathtaking intimacy and warmth. And if that’s not enough, Boyle sings like a rough-hewn, slightly gruff angel. Boyle’s voice, in fact, is remarkably similar to Bruce Springsteen’s in the latter’s more reflective moments, but it’s neither imitation nor affectation – Boyle is far too honest and real for that. Painting gentle but penetrating portraits of everyday people (“Unsung”) and places (“Leaving Dogtown”) with exquisite imagery and obvious affection,
Things get a little too complicated on S'Aida's latest.
It’s a bit of throwback, in this era of digital downloads (and rather short attention spans), to release a two-cd set showcasing an artist’s broad array of interests and influences. Brooklyn-born, raised in Switzerland, and now based in Toronto, Shakura S’Aida takes just that brave step with Time …, a thematic collection with the first disc subtitled Time To Rock My Soul, and the second labeled Time For The Blues … S’Aida is blessed with exceptionally powerful pipes and a charismatic presence. She’s worked in World music, is an accomplished actor, and has, for the last few years, appeared at
A fine and fitting tribute to a giant of the blues
Billy Boy Arnold seems to be turning into a one-man musical preservation society. Recent projects include a tribute to Sonny Boy Williamson, and Arnold was a key participant in both volumes of the multi –artist Chicago Blues – A Living History projects that traced the genre’s evolution. Here he turns his attention to another towering figure in the blues, Big Bill Broonzy. Big Bill Broonzy was a major star in his day. Originally from Mississippi, he made his way to Chicago in the 1920’s, gradually drifting from solo acoustic music – folk, blues, spirituals, hokum - to ensemble recordings with
Rockin' Johnny's return to recording fails to register ...
As a musical genre, the blues sometimes get a bad rep. And as vital and elemental as the form can be, there’s a valid reason why it’s often dismissed as ‘same old same old.’ It is, after all, a rather fixed format. And given its relative simplicity, the blues are relatively easy to play – witness countless unimaginative bar bands murdering the same standard set list, night after night, to less-than-memorable effect. Playing the blues well, though – so that they matter – is another matter entirely. For a time, Rockin’ Johnny Burgin was a youthful fixture on Chicago’s club
OCMS return with a collection that looks to the past but refuses to dwell there ...
Sociologists could no doubt have a field day analyzing the collective impulse behind the ‘return to the roots’ Americana movement. Celebrating old-timey acoustic music, string bands have actually made the banjo cool – no mean feat in an age of overproduced and computer-generated, sampled sound. Together since 1998, Old Crow Medicine Show (OCMS to the initiated) have established a reputation as one of the best of the new breed, with spirited performances and ragged-but-righteous harmonies applied to songs that sound – tired though the cliché may be – utterly timeless. Carry Me Back, the band’s fourth outing (and first since
Don't let the title mislead - Dykes is here to stay!
The title might be a bit misleading on this one – it’s rather hard to imagine Omar Dykes going anywhere other than on to the next gig. He’s been a professional musician for some fifty years now, and I’m Gone is billed as a celebration of that rather significant milestone. Judging by the impassioned yet unforced performances here, Dykes probably couldn’t live long without making music in some fashion. Regarding his latest, he says, “This is my 50th year of playing music, so I just did what I wanted to do. There’s a little bit of everything I like on
Two fine releases that maintain that all-important 'feel' while expanding upon the blues ...
Another pair of indie releases from Toronto-based bands … both superb recordings that start with and expand upon classic forms, with the results fresh and undeniably, inescapably vital … The 24th Street Wailers – Unshakeable For a bunch of twenty-somethings working in a genre that typically reveres its elders, Toronto’s 24th Street Wailers are generating a lot of buzz. They’re definitely not the typical blues band – featuring a female drummer/vocalist (Lindsay Beaver) and guitarist (Emily Burgess) who compose all the band’s tunes, the lineup also includes sax man Jonathan Wong and bassist Michael Archer. The band’s sound is rough
Believe it or not, the banjo is actually cool!
It’s an absolute no-brainer, reaally. Take the single most influential banjo player of all time, recently passed (Scruggs died in 2012 at the age of 88), gather the cream of a new generation, backed by an absolutely impeccable cast of supporting musicians … what could possibly go wrong? True, some would shrink in horror at the thought of a whole album’s worth of banjo-based instrumentals. It's not the most versatile instrument around – the banjo's tone doesn’t vary much, and the strings can’t be bent to add shading and nuance the way a guitar’s can. All too often, the only
A road trip well worth taking ...
Rock ‘n’ roll has been around long enough to give rise to many a legend. From the archetypical tale of a bluesman selling his soul to the devil, to the sheer banality of “The King” found dead on a toilet, there’s no shortage of myth-making material. Chris Price and Joe Harland are British radio producers whose mutual passion for rock ‘n’ roll begat a fast friendship. Price has long harbored a fascination with Gram Parsons, the seminal yet somewhat shadowy “cosmic cowboy” whose body was cremated by his (ex, obviously) manager in one of rock’s more bizarre episodes. And so
Strongman and Soulstack prove the indie roots scene is doing just fine ...
Two recent indie CD’s from Toronto and area-based artists show just how strong and diverse the Canadian roots scene is... Steve Strongman (based in Hamilton, Ontario) steps up with his first acoustic offering, an all-original outing (with co-writing credits to producer Rob Szabo on seven tracks). While the structures and overall instrumental palette are familiar enough, Strongman’s passionate performances and superior songs raise this one well above the pack. Strongman’s gritty, true-to-life compositions avoid trite repetition of tired clichés, and while he’s established a reputation as a hard-hitting electric guitarist, his acoustic work is nothing short of revelatory. About half
A Damn Good Time from the quintessential bar band
They’ve been called “America’s Bar Band,” and after over thirty years of relentless touring, there’s little doubt The Nighthawks deserve the name. Though Mark Wenner is the only founding member left, the band’s sound is genuinely road-hardened, and has remained remarkably consistent through the years. A mix of hardcore blues and roadhouse rock ‘n’ roll (and pretty much anything else that fits), The Nighthawks are a true ‘what you see is what you get’ band. There are no big-name guests, no fancy production or studio wizardry - just lean, muscular music, driven by squalling harmonica and stinging guitar, anchored by
A posthumous celebration of a harmonica master
Gary Primich left us all too soon, taken by an accidental drug overdose in 2007 at the age of 49. (Ironically, his final recording was called Riding The Dark Horse). Just A Little Bit More, clearly a labor of love steered by Gary’s father Jack, collects tracks released on several different labels between 1994 and 2006, as well as some he recorded with his friend and sometime employer, Omar Kent Dykes. Indeed, the disc is subtitled ‘with Omar Dykes,’ and it’s thanks to Dykes that there are seven previously unreleased tracks included that, a few technical glitches aside, stand up
The truth is in the title ...!
If such an award existed, Studebaker John would hands down take the trophy for most accurately named recording: Old School Rockin’ is just that, a raw and raucous celebration brimming with almost-uncontrollable energy from beginning to end. John’s last project, 2010’s Maxwell Street Kings, found him exploring the sounds and styles the prevailed in Chicago’s famed Maxwell Street Market, a pitch-perfect period piece that captured the rollicking sounds of street corner bands fighting for space. Old School Rockin’ is a natural extension, concentrating on the frenetic attack of music struggling to be heard above – make that conquer - the
Eddie does it his way ...!
Thank goodness for bluesmen like Eddie C. Campbell. That’s not to say there are many like Eddie. Indeed, at a time when it seems the twelve-bar template has been all but exhausted, Campbell’s like a breath of fresh air. He’s a bluesman through and through, yet within that relatively restricted format, his music is intensely idiosyncratic. His songs are laced with sardonic humor and occasionally surreal imagery, yet he delivers them in a manner, as the old blues song says, “as serious as a heart attack.” Spider Eating Preacher, Campbell’s intriguingly-titled latest, is a generous helping of wry bemusement at
Dad would be proud ...
It’s unquestionably unfair to the younger Mr. Morganfield, but comparisons are inevitable; as the son of a true titan of twentieth century music, it’s only natural that he’d be measured, at least to some degree, against his famous father. Muddy Waters, after all, virtually personifies Chicago-style blues. Held against such (impossibly) high standards, Mud Morganfield acquits himself admirably. Granted, he lacks the innate authority that came so naturally to Muddy, and his voice isn’t quite as rich and deep as dad’s. But as a modern-day bluesman he’s crafted a solid, unpretentious collection that stands just fine on its own. True,
Not the "same old blues...!"
It being a somewhat limited form, most blues artists grow by refining their delivery and improving their overall sound. It is, after all, a genre that values experience. Ottawa’s JW Jones, already a veteran while still in his twenties, is a blues guy through and through. But he’s determined to grow as an artist, and while he remains committed to the blues form, he’s constantly expanding on the standard twelve-bar formula, with complex compositions that are inventive and challenging yet retain the emotional impact that renders the blues so potent. In the past, Jones has looked outside of his core
Jazz with pizzazz...
Jazz can be a pretty serious business. It has, after all, been called “America’s classical music,” a genuinely indigenous art form, with the emphasis on ‘art.’ But at its best, there’s a sense of playful possibility about the music, too. Indeed, without a little jazz in the music, jazz-as-art-form becomes a cerebral exercise more to be admired than enjoyed. Enter up-and-comer Halie Loren, with a delightfully insouciant approach to a handful of chestnuts that brings tired old warhorses (“All Of Me,” “Taking A Chance On Love,” Charlie Chaplin’s “Smile”) to intriguing life. Heart First is Loren’s fourth full-length recording, the
National Treasure Lurrie Bell makes the devil's music sacred...
“As long as there is a black church there will be blues musicians,” says Sterling Plumpp’s introductory quote to Lurrie Bell’s The Devil Ain’t Got No Music, and it’s apt indeed. It’s Bell’s first all-gospel recording, but were it not for the lyrics, this collection would unquestionably be filed under blues. The blues and the black church have a long and rich relationship, of course. Widely considered ‘the devil’s music,’ the blues were banned in many a religious household, and blues musicians were almost universally thought to be headed straight to hell. Yet musically, gospel and blues are two sides
Unpretentious blues with some genuinely stunning harmonica work
Al Lerman is a musical journeyman in the finest sense. A founding member of Fathead, one of Canada’s premier blues and funk outfits, he’s an experienced performer and an accomplished songwriter, equally adept on harmonica, guitar, and saxophone. As a sideman for hire, he’s worked with a veritable who’s who of Canadian blues legends; here he’s backed by a few of the finest, including bassist / producer extraordinaire Alec Fraser and drummer Bucky Berger, with Lance Anderson contributing keys and accordion. Lerman claims he never thought to put out a solo album until he found himself playing more and more
Unpretentious blues with some genuinely stunning harmonica work
Al Lerman is a musical journeyman in the finest sense. A founding member of Fathead, one of Canada’s premier blues and funk outfits, he’s an experienced performer and an accomplished songwriter, equally adept on harmonica, guitar, and saxophone. As a sideman for hire, he’s worked with a veritable who’s who of Canadian blues legends; here he’s backed by a few of the finest, including bassist / producer extraordinaire Alec Fraser, drummer Bucky Berger, with Lance Anderson contributing keys and accordion. Lerman claims he never thought to put out a solo album until he found himself playing more and more solo
Gospel so immaculate it transcends belief …!
Certain people own certain catchphrases. Bart Simpson and ‘cowabunga’ are inextricable. No one can utter ‘mother$#@*%&’ with quite the authority of Samuel L. Jackson. And if there’s any justice on earth, the phrase ‘heavenly harmonies’ shall hereby and henceforth be allocated to the sublime vocals of Jamie Dailey And Darrin Vincent. Dailey And Vincent are well-known in the bluegrass world, where, along with home and heartbreak, faith forms one of the genre’s cornerstones. Here, though, they expand the instrumental palette beyond the relatively restricted all-acoustic standard. There’s piano, percussion, and both a string section and a brass section – instrumentation
Jump blues guitar slinger tries his hand at a solo outing with excellent results
The notion of an intinerant bluesman, guitar slung across his back as he travels dusty roads and plays for his supper, is quaintly out-of-date. Yet Bluesman’s Plea, the first solo outing from Brandon Isaak, frequently conjures just such an image. Isaak, usually found fronting Vancouver-based jump-blues band The Twisters, is largely on his own with Bluesman’s Plea, and instrumentation is primarily acoustic. There’s nothing quaint or dated about Isaak’s music, though. An all-original collection (eleven songs, with three ‘bonus’ cuts), there are enough ‘modern’ touches, courtesy of producer, engineer, drummer (oh, and younger brother, too) Chris Isaak, to keep this
Southern soul by way of England
Lisa Mills is blessed. Blessed, that is, with a vocal abilities that seem to encompass and embody every cliché ever applied to a gruff, gargle-with-broken-glass yet velvety-smooth voice. It’s a remarkable instrument indeed, and she employs it magnificently on Tempered In Fire, her natural melisma and southern drawl at times reminiscent of Lucinda Williams, while elsewhere she exudes the fiery passion and gritty intensity of the late, great Otis Redding. Mills is from Mississippi, but Tempered In Fire was recorded in Kent, England, and there’s a vaguely intercontinental feel to proceedings. Most of the songs lean heavily to southern soul,
A lively and engaging collection with an old-timey feel
Although there’s really no definitive definition of just what jazz is, it’s generally considered a bit more cerebral than typical pop music. Yet many jazz standards – the songs that form the bedrock upon which countless improvisers and interpreters add their personal touch – began life as simple pop ditties. Catherine Russell is undeniably a jazz singer, yet she brings a playful, irreverent approach to the music that keeps the emphasis firmly on fun. She’s backed by a superb aggregation that begins with a jazz quartet (Matt Munisteri on guitar and banjo(!), pianist Mark Shane, with bassist Lee Hudson and
A loving and lovely tribute to a seminal bluesman
Lonnie Johnson was a formidably influential musician in his day. A fluid and accomplished guitarist, he straddled the worlds of blues and jazz, recording with both Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington, and is cited as a formative influence by no less than B. B. King. A quiet and unassuming man, he was more than willing to perform whatever his audience preferred, including whatever was popular at the time. But he was arguably at his best as a bluesman, and most of his recorded legacy remains filed under blues. Mark Miller, the dean of Canadian jazz journalists, has crafted a loving
As gospel music goes, this one’s as good as it gets!
All the elements are certainly in place for greatness on Our Journey, the debut of The McCrary Sisters. The sisters themselves bring a formidable backstory to the project; born into a musical household, their late father, the Rev. Samuel McCrary, was a founding member of legendary gospel quartet The Fairfield Four. Individual credits vary widely, but Ann has two solo recordings under her belt, while sister Regina toured and recorded with Bob Dylan and has performed with both Elvis and Johnny Cash. Our Journey is the first recording by all four sisters – Ann, Regina, Alfreda, and Deborah. Apart from
Brassy and bold and highly opinionated – Treasa Levasseur is a broad in all the good ways …!
Toronto’s Treasa Levasseur is no shrinking violet; brazenly calling her latest recording Broad, she exhibits a fiercely independent and ferocious intelligence that refuses to back down from controversial subject material. Whether examining personal relationships or the sharp divides that tear families and society apart, she’s unflinchingly honest and emotionally indomitable. And yet she does it all with a voice that, while capable of gritty resolve, can best be described by the overworked cliché “smooth as velvet.” Levasseur wrote nine of Broad’s twelve tracks, with covers including Neil Young’s “Walk On” and Randy Newman’s acerbic “God’s Song” (provocative even by Newman’s
A classic country Christmas
Patsy Cline had one of the most distinctive voices in American music – a seemingly perfect combination of purity and power. Unfortunately, her career was cut short before she got around to recording a Christmas album. Enter Mandy Barnett, a singer with a voice so startlingly similar to the late Cline’s, it’s as though the latter never left this world. That’s not to say that Barnett is an artistic clone without a musical vision of her own. But the vocal resemblance is uncanny, and Barnett’s milieu of choice is the classic country of the 1950’s, when the likes of Cline
Davis manages the remarkable – a genuinely likeable blues album.
Listening to Morgan Davis' new disc, Drive My Blues Away, it helps to know a bit about the man behind the music. Something of an unassuming legend for his role in the nascent Canadian blues scene back when Canadian music first began to have an identity, he was there when the 'Toronto sound' was forged. And in person he's pleasant, thoughtful, witty, and intellectually curious, with a generous and warm spirit. In short, a really nice guy. Nice guys, typically, don't make compelling blues albums. Blues, by design and by definition, isn't 'nice' music. At their best, the blues have lots
Fathead founder celebrates a milestone with a superlative sampling of deep soul
There’s a cliché that says certain singers are so soulful they can ‘sing the phone book’ and make it a profoundly moving experience. John Mays is one of those singers, a man who seemingly oozes soul, and his debut, “I Found A Love,” is an utterly superb recording. Mays isn’t exactly a stranger to the studio – as lead vocalist for Toronto-based Fathead, he’s fronted the band through numerous recordings. But I Found A Love, released on his 70th birthday, is the first under his own name. Chock full of deep soul chestnuts, it’s a magnificent collection that combines exquisitely
Norcia's combination of elegance and grit yield excellent results
Sugar Ray Norcia occupies a somewhat curious place in the blues. A smooth-voiced crooner with a buttery-rich, mellow delivery, he’s usually found fronting a hard-driving, gritty band in the classic, down-‘n’-dirty Chicago mold. It’s an unusual juxtaposition -- silky elegance and whiskey-soaked grit -- but Norcia makes it work through sheer artistry, with equal helpings of energy and aplomb. It doesn’t hurt that he plays one of the meanest harmonicas around, either. Norcia’s been at it for a long time now. He’s led his Bluetones – initially featuring a just-starting-out Ronnie Earl - on and off since 1979, taking time
Muldaur broadens her scope this time out with stellar results
Maria Muldaur is something of a one-woman musical preservation society. Following a trio of finely focused recordings celebrating early women blues singers, she released an album of old-timey jug band music. All excellent projects that helped to show just how vibrant this music remains in the hands of a committed and engaged performer, they nonetheless must have seemed a bit confining to a woman with the chops and savvy to interpret just about anything and make it her own. With Steady Love, Muldaur returns to a more all-encompassing sound she calls ‘bluesiana,’ and the results, if considerably more eclectic, are
The Duke doing what he does best
It’s tempting to say that, following a somewhat less-than-stellar outing featuring his own compositions, Duke Robillard has returned to doing what he does best – covering blues classics with swinging, swaggering aplomb. But then, truth be told, Robillard’s pretty darn good at just about any musical undertaking … Robillard first made his name as a co-founder of perennial favorites Roomful Of Blues, an outfit that’s still going strong. He’s since dabbled in rock (for a while he was the guitarist for The Fabulous Thunderbirds, and led his own Pleasure Kings through a few recordings) and jazz. Producer extraordinaire, he’s also
A fine collection that’s both timeless and true...
Mark T. Small’s Blacks, Whites & The Blues is one of those collections that raises a lot of questions. Why, for instance, do so many singer-guitarists decide to go it alone, and assume they have something to offer that others will want to listen to? And why, oh why, do modern interpreters insist on covering tunes that are dated to a point where they’re, lyrically at least, remnants of a long-vanished past? And then there’s the third question – should any of this matter, when the music’s good? Mark T. Small’s story is familiar. Front man for a modestly successful
A absolute jewel of a recording …!
There’s a bit of a resurgence in classic soul these days, what with the likes of Joss Stone, the late Amy Winehouse, and Adele getting lots of airplay. All well and good; there’s a reason, after all, that the sound is considered classic, and good music is good music no matter where, when, or why it’s made. Like the blues, though – arguably the musical source of soul’s powerful emotive punch – classic soul, the real stuff, is best delivered by a voice that’s been around the block a time or two. Sure, young and callow performers can deliver a
First-rate second-generation blues
Demetria Taylor’s musical credentials are unassailable – she’s the daughter of Eddie Taylor, one of the (largely unheralded) architects of Chicago blues. As guitarist for Jimmy Reed, Taylor helped to establish the twelve-bar template, and his fretwork forms an integral part of many blues classics. Demetria’s brothers, Larry and Eddie Jr., are both well-respected recording artists, with the latter helping out on her debut with solid, dependable guitar throughout. So the lineage is impeccable indeed. And if genetics alone aren’t sufficient, Demetria remembers legends like Eddie Shaw (who also appears here), Johnny Littlejohn, and Sunnyland Slim hanging out and jamming
Golub is good, but he's not royalty
The guitar is ubiquitous in modern music, and the level of technical proficiency that some players have achieved is utterly breathtaking. Yet music isn’t just about the notes. It’s about the message. It’s a form of communication, a method of storytelling. Which is why guitarists with the ability to play almost anything continue to return to the simplicity and honesty of the blues. It may not be the most technically demanding of genres, but within the blues, each note matters. Jeff Golub has played a lot of music in his time. A Berkley graduate, he’s probably best known for his
Soul-Blues done right!
Anyone who’s spent any time listening to the blues knows it comes in many shades. In addition to regional variations – Delta, Piedmont, Texas, and West-Coast Swing are all instantly identifiable styles - the blues can be as simple as a solo guitar and voice, or as big and brassy as a full orchestra. Technical definitions aside, it all comes down to feel... Quintus McCormick, raised in Detroit and now based in Chicago, refuses to confine himself to twelve-bar convention, and his music is blue by feel as much as anything else. That’s not to say there aren’t several tunes
Edgy, energetic blues for modern times
It’s awfully easy for blues bands to slip into a rut. The twelve-bar form is finite, and there are so many utterly definitive songs out there that it’s hard to find new things to say within the blue spectrum. Daddy Long Legs, a four-piece band from Waterloo, Ontario, clearly love the blues, but refuse to be confined by the format. Calling their music ‘garage blues,’ they cheerfully mix jumps, shuffles, and boogies with touches of surf and grunge. It’s a rough, raucous blend, bristling with an edgy energy that’s held in check by intelligent songwriting and well-crafted arrangements. Bassist Steve