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
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
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
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,
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