Blues Bytes


July 2020

Pete Special
Mozart Street
Nation Records

Jose Alvarez
Diggin' In
Toluca Rocket Music

One of many odd jobs I've taken on at home during the current novel coronavirus pandemic is to reorganize my CD racks. The shuffling of discs caused a few that I had forgotten to come back to my attention. They were both obscure albums then and are even more so now, but the quality of music was top-notch and they both deserve a second look. Thus, this month's Flashback will contain the original reviews of these two discs.

From the November 1998 Surprise pick:

Pete SpecialAt first I didn't think I was going to like Mozart Street, from Chicago guitarist Pete Special. But I kept listening, and gradually this quirky kind of blues sound grew on me. So I listened to it again, and liked it even better. Real interesting stuff.

Special was the guitarist with former Chicago blues/soul/frat music band Big Twist & The Mellow Fellows. His vocal style will never be compared to that of the late Big Twist. Instead, he's got kind of a Tom Waits type of gravelly voice, and makes effective use of his limited vocal skills. But the music is much more upbeat than most of what we've heard from Waits. There's also a bit of a Doctor John sound at work here. The tight backing band includes an excellent horn section and a solid rhythm section.

Mozart Street starts off with the gritty, yet perky original "Cool World," in which Special sings about a cool world, a bebop city, a place with lots of neon and music in the square. The background chorus helps to make this number a special one.

Sax player John Bowes is the hero on cut number two, "Mozart St.," featured on several very good solos. Now this tune sounds like something Waits would record.

"Those Were The Days" is much closer to Chicago blues than the previous numbers, so Special gets to play a little more serious guitar here. It's a heartfelt tribute to his days with Big Twist & The Mellow Fellows, and I believe he mentions nearly everyone who was ever part of that band.

I was a little suspicious when I noticed that a cover of "When Something Is Wrong With My Baby" was included here. This Sam & Dave tune has been recorded by some pretty good singers, and I wondered whether Special would have the pipes to do it justice. Fear not, friends --- this is a great, great version. The smoother-sounding Roberto Aguilar shares the lead vocals with Special; the two contrast each other quite well. I'd like to hear more from Mr. Aguilar --- who is this cat? Bowes again contributes a nice sax break.

A funky original which will have you boppin' your head in time is "Inside Out," another tune which gives Special the opportunity to get in some decent guitar work. One of the catchiest numbers on Mozart Street is the aptly-named uptempo song "Are We Rockin' Or What?" ... " ... are we cookin', are we kickin' some butt, I gotta know, girl, are we rockin' or what?..."

The album ends with two soulful blues covers, "Breakin' Up Somebody's Home" and Bobby Rush's "Chicken Heads." The former has been recorded way too many times, but Special's raspy voice gives it a way overdue fresh treatment. And the latter is an appropriate ending, a funky, offbeat song for a funky, offbeat CD.

Mozart Street might be more than the surprise pick for the month; it could come in as one of the surprises of the whole year. No, it's not all straight blues. But it's all great music. Check it out if you feel like venturing away from the straight eight-bar blues.

Bill Mitchell

From the August 2010 What's New:

Jose AlvarezJose Alvarez is a native of Mexico City whose formative blues years were spent on the Syracuse, New York blues scene. While his more recent work has been with Terrance Simien's zydeco ensemble, Alvarez returned to the Syracuse area to record his first solo release, Diggin In (Toluca Rocket Music), and is backed by one of his former bands, Los Blancos, as well as guest stars by Simien, Kingsnakes harmonica player Pete McMahon, and others.

Alvarez is a talented guitarist versatile in a wide range of styles. He shows off his licks on the opening instrumental, "Fennel St. Frost," a blues shuffle done originally by Albert Collins, and on his own "Kaffe," a Latin jazzy thing.

One of my favorites on Diggin In is the nice rendition of Taj Mahal's "Queen Bee," with Colin Aberdeen on vocals. At first it sounds a little too much like Taj's version to invite comparison to the original, but then Simien's accordion, Will Terry's tenor sax and Mark Nanni's Hammond B-3 accompaniment put an original spin on the number.

Aberdeen's original "I'll Be Your Man" starts with Alvarez playing a bit of a "Stairway to Heaven" guitar lick before turning into a slow, lounge-y blues that, at over eight minutes, goes on too long. Despite Alvarez's tasteful guitar licks, Aberdeen's vocals aren't strong enough to maintain interest over this span of time.

Terry is featured with on "Down at Turner's Lounge," a jazzy shuffle written by Alvarez that also gives Aberdeen a good piano solo.

McMahon steps to the front of the bandstand, handling both vocals and harmonica, on Joe Beard's downhome blues, "Lay For Me Sometime." This is one of the better cuts on the CD.

Diggin In closes with a mid-tempo jazzy instrumental, "503 Beacon Street," that gives Alvarez one more chance to show off his guitar work. He's skilled in wide range of styles, which actually works against him on this disc. I enjoyed most of the cuts on the album. But with the constant jump from jazz to Chicago blues to New Orleans blues to country blues and back again, there's not the cohesive flow to the album that allows the listener to get into a steady groove.

Still, Alvarez is a talented artist with a good future ahead of him, and Diggin In is worth the search.

--- Bill Mitchell



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