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January 2018

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Order these featured CDs today:

Tinsley Ellis

Big Shoes

Dennis Johnson

Chris Daniels and the Kings

Wee Willie Walker

Savoy Brown

Peter Parcek

Albert Castiglia

Casey James

Likho Duo

Joel DaSilva

Ilana Katz Katz

The McKee Brothers

Cassie Keenum and Rick Randlett

Trevor Sewell

Leonard Griffie

Kelly Z

Jeff Fetterman

Peter Ward

61 Ghosts

Al Corte

Lara and the Blue Dawgz

Val Starr

Jim Vegas


Tinsley Ellis

Tinsley Ellis
just hit double figures in his Alligator recording career, with Winning Hand being his 10th release for the long-standing blues label. A guitar player's guitar player, Ellis shows his dedication to his instrument by listing the model and year of the guitar used on each song. I've never seen that level of detail by an artist, although I'm sure it's been done before. But what we're really interested in is what Ellis does with his vast collection of guitars on the album and not in the liner notes.

Ellis starts the album with a searing blues guitar solo (using a 1973 Gibson Les Paul Deluxe) on "Sound Of A Broken Man," on which he continues ripping off one hot solo after another. Following that is "Nothing But Fine," a thumping, driving mid-tempo shuffle (using a 1967 Gibson ES 345).

The opening verse of the slow blues "Gamblin' Man" and then the intensity of the song as it proceeds reminds me of some of Luther Allison's best work. There's so much emotion packed into both Ellis' guitar playing and in his vocals that one can't help but to be moved. Six minutes of pure blues bliss! It's by far my favorite cut on Winning Hand.

Ellis is a far better guitarist than he is a singer. His voice works well enough on some cuts, but there are a few slower, more ballad-type of songs on which his vocals just don't complement the instrumental side of the equation. "Autumn Run" and the slow blues "Don't Turn Off The Light" are the two songs that don't suit my tastes.

Even more sizzling guitar can be heard on the mid-tempo blues "I Got Mine," with Ellis picking up a 1959 Fender Strat. Co-producer Kevin McKendree contributes tasty keyboard accompaniment throughout this song.  Ellis and McKendree both kick it on the mid-tempo shuffle "Kiss This World," with the latter really providing a wall of sound with his organ.

"Satisfied" flips it altogether with McKendree opening this barn burner with a hot, boogie woogie piano solo leading into a rockabilly romp, with Ellis blowing it out with his 1996 Fender Telecaster. The only cover song on Winning Hand is a version of Leon Russell's "Dixie Lullaby," a mid-tempo shuffle that functions as a star vehicle for McKendree's exemplary keyboard work.

Picking up his 2000 Les Paul Standard and playing the heck out of it on the closing cut, Ellis uses the slow blues "Saving Grace" to bring this album to its very satisfying conclusion. If you're already a big fan of Tinsley Ellis, then you know what to expect from Winning Hand --- lots and lots of smokin', rockin' guitar riffs.

 --- Bill Mitchell

Big ShoesI was unfamiliar with the name of this Nashville group, Big Shoes, upon receiving their debut CD, Step On It! (Biglittle Records). But in reading the accompanying media release, I see that their band members are veteran session musicians who have backed the likes of Bonnie Raitt, Van Morrison, Delbert McClinton, Etta James, Levon Helm, Joss Stone, Bobby "Blue" Bland, and others. Led by vocalist / guitarist Rick Huckaby, this seven-piece ensemble rolls through a pleasant 11 songs, all written by one or more band members. My first impression was that there was nothing here that made me say, "Wow!," but the music on Step On It! grew on me the more I listened to it. I can't label it as a great album, but that's okay because it's still pretty darned good.

The music here is pretty much basic blues with some influences from Little Feat (from whom the band got its name), The Allman Brothers, Bonnie Raitt and the Neville Brothers. The opening number, "Duplex Blues," is a mid-tempo blues shuffle on which Huckaby sings about the misery of living in a small space with noisy neighbors that are just way too close. I see you nodding your head in agreement --- yeah, we've all been there.

One of my favorites is the New Orleans-ish "Don't You Do Me That Way," with drummer Andy Peake starting off with some effective second line drumming and later highlighted by tasty Crescent City piano from Mark T. Jordan. Also very effective is the soulful "Ain't Nobody Loves You Like Me," with a big brassy horn section reminiscent of some of the great early soul recordings done in Muscle Shoals, Alabama's Fame studio. Not surprising since the horn parts for this album were recorded at the still active Fame. Huckaby does his strongest vocal work here and Will McFarlane tosses in nice slide guitar work. "There You Go" is a strong mid-tempo funky tune, with hot guitar solos.

The horn section of sax man Brad Guin and trumpet player Ken Watters contribute to the slow blues of "Too Early For The Blues," with a nice blues guitar solo by Kenne Cramer, the composer of the song. "Walked Out the Front Door" may be familiar to some listeners from when it was covered by Bonnie Raitt on her Home Plate album. It was written by Big Shoes keyboardist Jordan who provides splendid piano accompaniment on the tune.

Step On It! gets wrapped up into a nice package with the closing number, "Honey Pie," as its composer Cramer provides the guitar riffs to open this funky shuffle, with Jordan also hitting the 88s.

Like I said earlier, this album grew on me the more I listened to it. It's a showcase for veteran musicians playing the music they love so much --- how could it not be good?

--- Bill Mitchell

Dennis JohnsonGuitarist Dennis Johnson, heard on the self-released Rhythmland with his band The Mississippi Ramblers, has a tone and an attitude that stands him apart. Other than “Walkin Blues,” this is a program of originals that impresses.

On the quick-steppin’ “Walkin’ Blues” his mastery of the National steel is a great way to introduce himself. The presence of drummer Tim Metz, bassist Jonathan Stoyvanoff and keyboardist and backing vocalist Craig Long is more than backing. This is a fully involved band. Everyone’s contribution is apparent. Johnson is able to approach the blues in various ways. His slide on the balladic “Faith” (“I’ve been down since the day you left”) is superb. “Fillmore Street” has a sound that harkens back to the piano bar sound that must have dominated Fillmore in the 1940s. “That Way No More” highlights his finger picking and “Valley Of Love” again highlights his National Steel work.

“High Heeled Shoes” is a rocker of sorts. He sings, “Caldonia got sad/her boyfriend left/Lost her job/her life is a mess/Landlord say ‘pay the rent’/poor Caldonia’s money’s all spent/Caldonia’s got a simple cure for the blues/a new pair of high heeled shoes.” “My Love Is Here For You” is another song that reminds of the 40s, with brushes on snare and piano supporting Johnson’s vocals and slinky guitar. “If the mountains crumble/if you stumble/if your world turns blue/just remember my love is here for you.” A very sweet tune.

On “Southbound Train” he sings a tribute of sorts to fallen heroes that starts out balladic and builds locomotive steam. “Robert Johnson sang the blues/until we got the news/the people cried that night/something wasn’t right.” The song goes on to tell how those early promoters “stole the music from me and you.” A clever and moving piece.

The final number is a rock record, in an old Bob Seger sort of a way. It speaks of another bygone era, the 60s and 70s. You remember. “One by one we walked into the streets/started marchin’ and movin’ our feet/…we came together as one.” Here’s a song that asks how we got sidetracked from that movement. “Our rights were all gone.” A wholly inspiring song that takes some of older hippies back.

You’ve never heard of Dennis Johnson, I hadn’t either. Keep your ears open and enjoy his latest.

--- Mark E. Gallo


Chris Daniels and the KingsChris Daniels And The Kings (with Freddi Gowdy) celebrate their 33rd year by paying tribute to the classic horn bands of the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s on Blues With Horns, Vol 1 (Moon Voyage Records). Singer/guitarist Daniels was inspired to put the album together after meeting a young blues fan who grew up listening to Clapton, SRV, and Gary Clark, Jr. and was totally unfamiliar with the concept of utilizing horns to play the blues, which made Daniels wonder “how many other blues fans don’t know about the New Orleans, Memphis horn tradition in blues that goes back 100+ years.”

Blues With Horns, Vol 1 includes ten tracks, three of which are original tunes. Daniels wrote the opener, “Sweet Memphis,” is a horn-driven track that has a strong Little Feat resemblance, thanks to Sonny Landreth’s soaring slide guitar and Daniels’ laidback vocal. Gowdi, who joined the band in 2009, co-wrote the James Brown-inspired “Get Up Off The Funk,” and Daniels wrote the moving acoustic closer, “Rain Check,” a guide to living from his mother who, like Daniels (and Gowdi), was a cancer survivor and lived life to the fullest (“Son, it’s better to be seen than it is to be viewed”).

The covers are an inspired lot, beginning with Rex Peoples’ funky “Fried Food/Hard Liquor,” a track which is so downhome, you’d swear it was fried in Memphis grease. Next, Gowdi and Daniels give a smooth reading of the Sam Cooke standard, “Soothe Me,” which features Hazel Miller and Coco Brown on backing vocals, followed by the Bobby “Blue” Bland classic, “Wouldn’t Treat A Dog (The Way You Treated Me).”

Johnny “Guitar” Watson gets some much-deserved love, as the band covers two songs from his catalog, “Baby’s In Love With The Radio” and “You Can Stay But That Noise Must Go,” both of which, like most of the Gangster of Love’s repertoire, mix funk, rock, and blues --- styles that Daniels, Gowdi, and the Kings are more than comfortable with. Elvin Bishop’s humorous “Can’t Even Do Wrong Right” gets a Crescent City treatment, and the Buddy Miles’ “Them Changes,” gets a roof-raising resurrection, with Clay Kirkland adding some sizzling harmonica to the mix.

The Kings (Randy Amen – drums/vocals, Kevin Lege – bass/vocals, Colin “Bones” Jones – lead guitar, Jim Waddell – alto and tenor sax/vocals, and Darryl Abrahamson – trumpet/vocals) make this great music come to life, and they get able assistance on selected tracks from Landreth (slide guitar), Miller and Brown (backing vocals), Kirkland (harmonica), John Magnie (keyboards), Doug Krause (keyboards), Bob Rebhoz (tenor sax/horn arrangements), Daren Krammer (trombone/horn arrangements) and Jacob Davis (bass vocals).

While a lot of folks enjoy streaming music these days, the unique accordion-styled packaging of Blues With Horns, Vol 1 (by artist Greg Carr) should encourage music fans to make at least one more physical music purchase. However you choose to buy your music, however, you should make this entertaining disc an essential purchase.

--- Graham Clarke

Wee Willie WalkerOne of the nicest music stories in recent years has been the reemergence of veteran soul man Wee Willie Walker. Long regarded as one of the finest soul singers on the planet, Walker got his start in Memphis, first with gospel groups like the Redemption Harmonizers but later as a recording artist for Goldwax Records in the late ’60s. Eventually settling in the Minneapolis area, he became a vital part of the Twin Cities music scene, fronting the local band, The Butanes, and appearing on a couple of albums with the group. In 2016, Walker released his own If Nothing Ever Changes to rave reviews.

Walker’s latest release, After A While (Blue Dot Records) finds the singer collaborating with The Anthony Paule Soul Orchestra, the Bay Area band led by guitarist extraordinaire Paule. It’s a match made in Soul Heaven, as Walker works through a 13-song set of eight originals (mostly written or co-written by Walker, Paule, and co-producer Christine Vitale) and five choice covers. There have been a number of soul music revivals during the past few years, but this is surely one of the best to date. The original tunes compare very favorably to soul classics of the past.

The opener, “Second Chance,” recalls the glory days of Willie Mitchell’s Hi Records, while tracks like “Thanks For The Dance” bring to mind the classic Drifters sides of the ’50s, and the funky backdrop of “If Only” recalls the New Orleans R&B of the early ’60s. The title track is a tender ballad that drips southern soul, as does the brutally honest “Cannot Be Denied,” while the timely “Hate Takes A Holiday” addresses modern issues.

The covers include George Jackson’s “I Don’t Want To Take A Chance” (the criminally underrated Jackson remains one of the most-covered songwriters most people have never heard of), a ripping read of Lil Green’s “Romance In The Dark,” Little Willie John’s rock and roller “Look What You’ve Done To Me,” the ’50s R&B classic “Lovey Dovey,” presented here as a duet with Walker and singer Terrie Odabi that sounds like a classic Otis/Carla duet from Stax, and a marvelous version of “Your Good Thing (Is About To End),” which closes the disc in spectacular fashion, with Walker testifying mightily with vocal encouragement from Loralee Christensen, Larry Batiste, and Glenn Walters.

Paule and the orchestra (Tony Lufrano – keys, Derrick “D’Mar” Martin – drums/percussion, Paul Olguin – bass, Tom Poole – trumpet, Derek James – trombone, Charles McNeal – tenor sax, Johnnie Bamont – bari sax/flute) are magnificent in support of Walker, and are rewarded with their own track, the instrumental “The Willie Walk” which allows them to strut their stuff.

After A While shows that Wee Willie Walker is as formidable a voice on the soul music scene as he was when he was releasing those fine Goldwax sides some 50 years ago. With the able assistance of The Anthony Paule Soul Orchestra, it seems that the veteran singer has found the perfect complement to his talents. Soul music lovers should seek this one out at their first opportunity.

--- Graham Clarke

Savoy BrownThe British blues-rockers Savoy Brown have been in operation since 1965. Roll that around in your collective heads for a moment --- that’s 52, almost 53 years ago! Founder Kim Simmonds has been there since the very beginning and remains steadfast in pursuing his musical vision – a British version of a Chicago blues band. Over their half century of activity, the band has toured almost nonstop, despite numerous personnel changes, and has released well over 30 albums, their most recent works have been on Ruf Records, where they’ve enjoyed a bit of a resurgence.

For the band’s latest release, Witchy Feelin’ (Ruf Records), Simmonds serves as lead vocalist and songwriter, with the longtime rhythm section (Pat DeSalvo – bass, Garnet Grimm – drums) providing their usual rock-solid support. Simmonds’ vocals are someone reminscent of Mark Knopfler at times, but there’s a bit of J.J. Cale mixed in on songs like the swampy “Livin’ On The Bayou.” I get a bit of Lou Reed in his delivery on the hard rocking opener “Why Did You Hoodoo Me” and “I Can’t Stop The Blues.”

The title track revisits that swampy blues vibe, albeit at a slower burn, and Simmonds mixes in some impressive guitar fills. “Guitar Slinger” recounts a Simmonds encounter with another guitar legend, Roy Buchanan, in the late ’60s and Simmonds’ guitar work reflects Buchanan’s influence on his own style. “Vintage Man” is a tune that most middle-aged rock n’ roller can relate to, lyrically as well as with Simmonds’ wicked slide work, which he also proudly displays on the meditative “Standing In A Doorway,” and on the hard-driving blues rocker “Memphis Blues.”

One might think that Simmonds pulls out all the guitar stops on the fiery “Can’t Find Paradise,” but he really does so with the nearly eight-minute “Thunder, Lightning & Rain.” Maybe the standout track on the disc, it’s a wild ride which simmers along at a slow psychedelic boil and builds to an amazing climax. The instrumental closer, “Close to Midnight,” changes the mood slightly, with Simmonds moving into a jazz mode with his fretwork.

Still going strong 50 years in, Savoy Brown and Kim Simmonds continue their remarkable musical journey with Witchy Feelin’, a disc that will definitely please their longtime fans and should introduce a lot of new ones into the fold, if there’s any justice in the world.

--- Graham Clarke

Peter ParcekIt’s been seven years since guitarist Peter Parcek’s last CD, The Mathematics of Love, which earned him a BMA nomination as Best New Artist Debut, but his latest release, Everybody Wants to Go to Heaven (Lightnin’ Records) is well worth the wait. Produced by Marco Giovino, the new album features ten tracks, six written by the guitarist (including three instrumentals), and special guests Luther Dickinson (North Mississippi Allstars), Muscle Shoals keyboard legend Spooner Oldham, Mickey Raphael (Willie Nelson), and the McCrary Sisters.

There’s a dark and brooding tone throughout the collection, and it starts immediately with his take on Peter Green’s “World Keeps On Turning,” highlighted by Parcek’s world-weary vocal and searing guitar work and backed by Giovino’s thundering percussion. Blind Lemon Jefferson’s “See That My Grave Is Kept Clean” is given a haunting presentation by Parcek that slowly unwinds. His guitar work is superb here and on the first instrumental, “Pat Hare,” that follows, which is dedicated to the troubled guitarist that played on numerous sides for Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, and James Cotton.

The muscular blues rocker “Ashes To Ashes” finds Parcek and Dickinson teaming up with electrifying results, and “Every Drop Of Rain” is a somber tale of a failed relationship. The second instrumental, “Shiver,” is fun and has a bit of a surf beat as Parcek and Dickinson have a ball trading solos. The lively “Things Fall Apart” has a grungy rockabilly flavor, and Don Nix’s title track is given a truly moody reading that manages to be tranquil and edgy at the same time.

The final instrumental is “Mississippi Suitcase,” a fabulous guitar showcase that deserves to be heard, and the closer, “Aunt Caroline Dyer Blues,” recorded by the Memphis Jug Band in 1930, Parcek incorporates fiddles and electric mandolin to really capture the essence of the original recording.
A magnificent effort, Everybody Wants to Go to Heaven improves on Peter Parcek’s previous album, a most impressive feat in itself. Blues fans should run, not walk, to grab a copy of this excellent release as soon as possible.

--- Graham Clarke

Albert CastigliaI feel pretty old these days, but what really makes me feel old is to find out that Albert Castiglia is approaching his 28th year as a professional musician. Seems like it was just yesterday that he was getting his professional start with Miami Blues Authority, but that was back in 1990. It’s been nearly 20 years since his tenure with Junior Wells’ band concluded with the harmonica legend’s passing (wow!). Since 2002, he’s carved out an impressive solo career that has seen the release of seven albums that have continued to build his fan base, including 2016’s Big Dog, which deservedly made several end-of-the-year Top Ten lists, and he seems to get better with each subsequent release.

For Castiglia’s latest release, Up All Night (Ruf Records), the singer/guitarist figured if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, returning to Dockside Studios in Maurice, Louisiana and reconnecting with fellow blues man Mike Zito, who produced his previous effort at Dockside as well. Castiglia did make changes, however, bringing in a new band with bassist Jimmy Pritchard and drummer Brian Menendez, and guest musicians Zito (guitar), Lewis Stephens (keys), Sonny Landreth (slide guitar), and Johnny Sansone (harmonica). Zito wrote several of the songs and Graham Wood Drout contnributed a couple as well, along with Cyril Neville and Brian Stoltz, while Castiglia contributes three of his own and co-authors five of the others.

With Zito behind the controls, Castiglia takes a straightforward approach. The producer’s “Hoodoo On Me” opens the album and sets the bar pretty high with its driving guitar riff and throbbing bassline. Stoltz’s title track is next, a midtempo track with a great grungy guitar tone (with some funky wah wah guitar mixed in). Drout’s “Three Legged Dog” keeps the funk and grunge intact and Castiglia’s half sung/half spoken rap is pretty cool, and Landreth’s soaring, otherworldly slide guitar forms a near-perfect team with Castiglia’s inspired fretwork.

“Knocked Down Loaded” is a fierce rocker with a taste of funk added by Pritchard and Menendez to form a firm foundation for Castiglia’s razor-sharp soloing, while the amusing slow burner “Quit Your Bitching” (a fine tune written by Zito) gives Castiglia ample space for some of his best guitar work on the album. Luther Johnson’s (“Snake Boy” version) “Woman Don’t Lie” gets a sizzling treatment from Castiglia, and Neville and Castiglia’s “Unhappy House of Blues” is a vintage downhome track that features Sansone on harp.

Sansone also appears on the lively “Delilah,” a mid-tempo pop/rock/blues concoction. “Chase Her Around The House is a randy and rowdy rockabilly number that provides an interesting segue to the excellent acoustic closer, “You Got Me To That Place,” featuring Zito and Castiglia collaborating on guitar and vocals.

Up All Night is a rock-solid set of contemporary blues that finds Albert Castiglia in familiar territory but expanding his sound considerably from his previous release. He just keeps getting better and better.

--- Graham Clarke

Casey JamesMusic fans may recognize Casey James from his third place finish during Season Nine of American Idol in 2010. In 2012, he released a self-titled album of country, pop, and rock tunes which did very well on the Billboard Country Charts, generated a couple of Top 25 hits, and resulted in a tour with Taylor Swift. Although successful, James wasn’t completely satisfied with the finished product and yearned to return to the music he loves --- the blues.

With his sophomore effort, the aptly titled Strip It Down, James does just that, returning to the blues and roots music that he grew up with in Texas. James enlisted Grammy-winning producer Tom Hambridge, and headed to a Nashville studio to convene with a crack backing band that includes Kevin McKendree (keys), Pat Buchanan (guitar/harmonica), Tommy McDonald (bass), Ron McNelley (guitar), Hambridge (drums), Wendy Moten (backing vocals), and the Muscle Shoals Horns.

James wrote or co-wrote 13 of the 14 tunes on Strip It Down, and they’re a solid set of tunes with catchy lyrics and melodies that stick with the listener. The blues rocker “All I Need” sets the table very well for what follows, including a feisty duet with Texas roadhouse legend Delbert McClinton, who shares lead vocals with James on “Bulletproof.” Next up is the deep soul of “Hard Times, Heartaches, and Scars,” the Texas-styled shuffle “Hurt Me More,” the funky “I Got To Go,” the lively “Messin’ Around,” and the energetic title track.

The album’s lone cover is Little Willie John’s “Need Your Love So Bad,” and James takes his time with this one, really putting his vocal talents fully on display, as well as his guitar chops. “Different Kind of Love” follows and has a great old school R&B feel and would be all over the radio if there was any justice in the world. The intense “Supernatural” is an authoritative blues rocker, and “Killin’ Myself” positively sizzles.

The raucous “Makin’ Up” is a piano-driven number that should get feet to moving. “Stupid Crazy,” with Bonnie Bishop on backing vocals, flirts with country, and the closer, “Fight You For The Blues” is a raw and ragged blues that appropriately brings this excellent release to a close.

It’s pretty clear from the opening chords of Strip It Down that blues and roots are near and dear to the heart of Casey James. Hopefully, this is the direction that he will continue to follow. Blues fans will find a lot to love about this stellar set.

--- Graham Clarke

Miss FreddyeMiss Freddye is known as “Pittsburgh’s Lady of the Blues.” Singing the blues since 1996, she got her start with BMW (Blues Music Works) before forming her band, Blue Faze, in the early 2000s, which gradually evolved into Miss Freddye’s Blues Band. Currently, she leads that band, plus an all-acoustic band, Miss Freddye’s Homecookin’ Band, and performs all over Western and Central Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Eastern Ohio. Her latest album, Lady of the Blues, should help expand her territory considerably.

For her debut release, Miss Freddye traveled west to Kid Andersen’s Greaseland Studios (which apparently never closes its doors), where Andersen and Andy Santana produced this gem of a recording with an impressive line-up of musicians, including Andersen (guitar/backing vocals), Santana (harmonica/backing vocals), June Core (drums), Endre Tarczy (bass), Eric Spaulding (saxes), Jim Pugh (keys), John Németh (harmonica), Aki Kumar (harmonica), Brandon “Dr. B” Bentz (harmonica), John Halbleib (trumpet), John Blues Boyd (vocals), and backing vocalist Lisa Andersen and Robby Yamilov.

On the sassy opener, “Miss Freddye’s Gonna Fix Ya,” Németh provides subtle harmonica backing and the band really locks into a funky groove. The mid-tempo “Luv Ya Baby” is one of two duets with John Blues Boyd, the other being the jazzy slow burner “Don’t Apologize, Recognize,” and the autobiographical title track certainly establishes Miss Freddye’s bonafides for the title. “Home Improvement” has a feisty fifties rock n’ roll feel, “Use The Back Door” is a tough shuffle that finds the lady getting rid of her lover, and “Chain Breaker” is a rhumba-fueled rocker that finds her yearning to be set free.

“Doorway To The Blues” is a smoky after-hours blues ballad, with a very smooth acoustic guitar break from Kid Andersen, while “These Are My Blues” adopts that old Jimmy Reed rhythm and sounds like a track right out of the Mississippi Delta. The swinging “Freight Train Blues” utilizes two harmonica players (Bentz and Kumar). Santana wrote or co-wrote 10 of the 11 tracks, the lone cover being the final tune, Dr. John’s “Losing Battle,” which Miss Freddye nearly makes her own with this splendid version.

Miss Freddye has been nominated for a pair of 2018 BMA’s, Best Emerging Artist and the Koko Taylor Award (Traditional Blues – Female). Based on the wall-to-wall excellence of Lady of the Blues, these nominations are well-deserved and hopefully, we will be hearing more from her in the near future.

--- Graham Clarke

LikhoFormed in the fall of 2016, Likho Duo consists of Italian guitarist/harmonica player Noé Socha and upright bassist Cliff Schmidt. Socha is a Berklee College of Music graduate who received the Jimi Hendrix Award for the college’s leading guitarist and the Billboard Magazine Endowed Scholarship presented to the college’s top student. He’s performed and recorded with Nona Hendryx, Vernon Reid, and Javier Limón, and has toured with Paula Cole. Schmidt has been based in New York City for the past two decades, touring with blues artist Michael Powers and jazz singer Curtis Stigers, and is the house bassist at Terra Blues.

The collaboration has already paid dividends for Likho Duo because the pair qualified for the 2018 I.B.C. (representing the Long Island Blues Society in the Solo/Duo competition). They also recently released their debut album, Blues And The World Beyond (Likho Records), a stunning 14-song set of acoustic instrumentals, six originals mixed with eight standards, that put an inventive and distinctive spin on the genre.

The duo covers a wide range of blues classics from several different time periods. A couple of Willie Dixon songs are included: “Spoonful and “You Shook Me.” Both tracks are great, with Socha getting down and dirty on slide guitar and harp on “Spoonful,” but “You Shook Me” is nearly eight minutes of Mississippi Delta blues heaven, the best nearly eight minutes a blues fan could ask for. There’s a breakneck cover of Muddy Waters’ “I Can’t Be Satisfied” that’s a standout, and John Lee Williamson’s “Good Morning Little Schoolgirl” is a welcome inclusion as well.

Just about every blues band includes a version of Freddie King’s “Hideaway” somewhere in their repertoire, but Likho Duo’s version has a cool, almost-jazz feel that’s quite different and very effective, and their reading of “Black Dog” (yes, the Led Zeppelin song) is just too cool for words. “Georgia” is Hoagy Carmichael’s standard “Georgia On My Mind,” and Socha’s fretwork is understated, but his harmonica playing is just marvelous. The final cover is of Renato Carosone’s “Tu Vuo Fa L’Americano,” and the duo’s swinging version is really fun.

The original tunes are equally entertaining. “Derby Street Blues” is a catchy country blues rocker that gives both musicians an opportunity to introduce themselves really well. “The Downtowner” focuses mostly on Socha’s harmonica playing, while “Romance Among Thieves,” “I’d Say,” and “Almere” all have an international feel and sound like tracks from a motion picture. The closing track is “Waltz For Katja,” a lovely and gentle ballad.

The Likho is a Slavic mythological creature with one eye. Socha is legally blind and Schmidt has issues with one of his eyes, so since they only have “one good eye between them,” they chose the Likho as their band name. If you’re at the I.B.C. in January, be sure and check out this compelling duo. If you don’t make it to Memphis, be sure and check out Blues And The World Beyond as soon as you can.

--- Graham Clarke

Joel DaSilvaFlorida-based guitarist/singer/songwriter Joel DaSilva was raised in Chicago, the son of traveling musicians from Brazil. He’s played professionally since the age of 18 and to date, has five releases to his credit, the latest being Everywhere But Here, a stellar set of rocking blues that dig deeply into his Chicago blues roots. Over his ten-year career, DaSilva has worked with an impressive list of musicians, such as B.B. King, Ray Charles, the White Stripes, Jimmie Vaughan, Edgar and Johnny Winter, A.C. Reed, Leon Russell, and others, earning high praise for his singing, songwriting, and fretwork.

Everywhere But Here includes ten tracks, eight written or co-written by DaSilva, that cover a broad base of blues. DaSilva’s vocals and guitar work also fit into several compartments as well, but the root of it all is the blues. The opener, “Shake,” is a smoldering rocker with a sweaty, swampy vibe, and “Everyday Man” has a retro feel, circa early ’70s, but resonates strongly in a modern vein. The ominous “Down In The Delta” is blues for the modern man, loaded with grungy guitars, tortured vocals, and haunting imagery, and the reflective “Chasin’ The Sun” will probably remind listeners of John Hiatt.

Fans of Texas roadhouse blues will surely dig “Cadillac Mama,” a slow-grooving swinger with stinging guitar fills and backing vocals from Natasha Watkins kicking things up a notch, and the spirited “Bad World” mixes rhumba with the blues. The raw and raucous “This Day I Bleed” rocks the way the old folks used to do it, and “Spell On Me” is a hard-driving shuffle that really stands out. But on the slow burner “Time Heals All Wounds,” DaSilva really shines, both vocally and with some T-Bone-like guitar work. The closer, “My Brazilian Soul,” is a splendid instrumental that finds DaSilva paying tribute to the music of his parents.

Clocking in at a short, but sweet 34+ minutes, Everywhere But Here is so good, you’ll definitely want to hear more. Hopefully, Joel DaSilva will return soon with more where this came from.

--- Graham Clarke

Ilana Katz KatzIlana Katz Katz has been playing blues violin on the busy platforms of the Boston subway system since 2008. A few years ago, she met guitarist Ronnie Earl, who invited her to sit in with him and eventually took her under his wing, even accompanying her on her 2014 debut recording and including her as a guest on many of his shows around Boston and New York. She’s continued to develop her performing skills, as well as her songwriting, recently releasing her third album, Subway Stories, on the VizzTone label. Produced by former Canned Heat guitarist Barry Levenson, who also backs Katz on guitar, Subway Stories includes 13 tracks, mostly originals written or co-written by Katz and Levenson, plus a couple of traditional blues classics. In addition to Levenson, Katz is backed by drummer/percussionist Mike Sandberg and bassist Hank Van Sickle, with guest appearances from Anthony Geraci on piano and Sugar Ray Norcia on harmonica.

The opener is “Don’t Forget,” where Katz recites a list of her musical influences, imploring us not to forget their names as she plays her fiddle, backed by a driving boogie beat from Levenson, Van Sickle, and Sandberg. The traditional “Riley and Spencer” is a folk tale of a pair of incorrigible boozers. Norcia plays harp on the entertaining autobiographical title track, which features some supple fretwork from Levenson as well. The traditional “Motherless Child” gets a lovely treatment, with Katz’s fiddle drifting between the blues and Appalachia, and Levenson’s liquidy guitar tone fits the bill perfectly, resulting in a gently understated, yet powerful performance.

The atmospheric “Poison Days” allows both Katz and Levenson ample room to showcase their prowess, and the rowdy rocker “Like A Wino,” adds Geraci’s piano to the mix. Geraci also helps heat up the ribald Roosevelt Sykes’ classic “Ice Cream Freezer Blues,” and Norcia returns for a swinging “Tribute to Slim Harpo,” which captures the swamp blues legend’s musical flavor well. Levenson and Katz also work through a pair of jazz-styled instrumentals, “Requiem” and “The Excuse.”

The freewheeling “Road To Nowhere” mixes jazz and swing, while “Don’t Cross That Line” has a bit of a country flair with a dash of rock. The closing track is a medley, beginning with the stirring instrumental “John Brown’s Dream” before seguing into “Subway Light of Mine,” a haunting reading featuring Katz vocal and fiddle.

Subway Stories is Ilana Katz Katz’s best work so far. Her fiddle playing is superb and she works very well in concert with Levenson’s always-compelling guitar work. Her vocals are also effective, too, giving some of the songs a haunting, otherworldly quality with her delivery. If you happen to be in Boston traveling via subway, be sure and keep on the lookout for this dynamite little lady.

--- Graham Clarke

Chickenbone SlimLarry Teves, a.k.a. Chickenbone Slim, played bass and sang in several San Diego band, working with a mulitude of musicians as well as leading his own bands, The Boogiemen and Jinxking. In 2011, he picked up guitar and since 2013, he’s fronted Chickenbone Slim & the Biscuits, releasing a CD in 2016. Slim’s latest release is The Big Beat, which was recorded at Kid Andersen’s Greaseland Studios in Hayward, with Anderson (guitar), Big Jon Atkinson (guitar/bass/harmonica), Marty Dodson (drums), and Scot Smart (bass/guitar) lending a hand.

The title track gets things started, a cool countrified swinging blues, interestingly a bit off-kilter in the rhythm, and Atkinson’s soaring harmonica really kicks things up a notch, “Long Way Down” has a retro blues/soul feel, locks into a groove and doesn’t let up, and the country-fried rocker “Hemi Dodge” will gets toes tapping and booties shaking. As expected, the acoustic “Vodka and Vicodin” is as good as the title would indicate, and the moody “Long Legged Sweet Thing” should be played from now on by future generations of self-respecting blues musicians.

“Do You Like It” is straight out of Chicago, and if you didn’t realize it, just listen to Atkinson’s harmonica and all doubt is removed, while the slow burner “Me and Johnny Lee” works well, thanks to a swampy Excello backdrop. “Man Down” funks things up quite a bit with a nifty Second Line rhythmic structure, before the album closes with the steady-rolling shuffle, “Break Me Off A Piece.”

The Big Beat is an impressive and entertaining release that certainly deserves to be heard. Another great production from Kid Andersen’s Greaseland Studios.

--- Graham Clarke

McKee BrothersThe McKee Brothers’ previous effort, Enjoy It While You Can, was a musical tour de force that incorporated a huge cast of talented musicians from Los Angeles (brother Denis’ home base) and Michigan (brother Ralph’s stomping ground) playing an outstanding set of music that borrowed from the blues, rock, soul, funk, R&B, gospel, and Latin genres. Though it covered a lot of musical territory, the collaboration worked well, due to a strong set of original songs (mostly written by keyboardist Bobby West) and the enthusiasm and energy of the musicians.

Wasting little time, the brothers have reconvened with another impressive collection of tunes, Moon Over Montgomery, that features many of the same musicians as their previous effort: singer Bob Schultz, guitarist/singer Larry McCray, keyboardist Jim Alfredson, former Tower of Power trumpeter Lee Thornburg, former Rufus bassist Bobby Watson, and sax man Doug Webb, plus some new faces that make an impact as well, including vocalists Jeff Robinson, Reggie Gonzales, Maxayn Lewis, and Reggie Brown, as well as singer/guitarist Laith Al-Saadi (finalist on 2016’s edition of The Voice).

This set includes a whopping 16 songs and nearly 80 minutes of music. West wrote six of the tunes this time around, and they include the tasty Gulf Coast rockers “Pig Feet” and “Confidential,” the smoking blues “You Know How I Lie,” the after-hours blues “Kicks,” the smooth R&B burner “Runaway Love,” and the title track, which pays tribute to the 1965 Civil Rights march. Bass player Al Threats contributed the funk blues “Bayou Man,” which teams Schultz and Robinson on vocals.

Covers include a dandy pair from Dan Penn. “Where You Gettin’ It” is one of the legendary songwriter’s most recent classics and Schultz does a fine job behind the mic, and “Blues Of The Month Club” is another standout tune (with vocals from Denis McKee). There’s also a mid-’70s find, “I Feel Like Dynamite,” originally released by King Floyd, and the Kenny Loggins’ mid-’70s smash “Celebrate Me Home” is sung by 17-year old Melissa McKee.

Denis McKee, who plays guitar on all tracks, B3, keyboards, and bass, also penned two originals, including “Worried About Tomorrow,” about the plight of a jobless veteran, and the funk workout “Go 2 Work.” He also collaborates with brother Ralph (bass, lap steel) on “Flat, Black, & Circular,” which takes us back to the days of vinyl, and Schultz on the Latin-flavored “Late At Night” (sung by McCray and Lewis).

As with the McKee Brothers’ debut, there’s plenty of fantastic music to be savored on Moon Over Montgomery by a host of music fans, but most especially fans of blues and old school soul, R&B, and funk.

--- Graham Clarke

Cassie Keenum and Rick RandlettCassie Keenum and Rick Randlett are both veterans of the Florida music scene. They were also semi-finalists at the 2017 I.B.C., having won the North Central Florida Blues Society’s Blues Challenge. Keenum’s powerful vocals have drawn comparisons to Big Mama Thornton and Susan Tedeschi. Randlett has previously released three CDs, the most recent being the well-received Change Coming On in 2012. The duo’s first collaborative project is Hauntings, a sharp 11-song set.

The songs are a mix of electric and acoustic, beginning with the moody opening cut, “Seventh Day.” “One More Last Time” has a taste of Chicago in it’s rhythm, with guest Little Mike adding harmonica, and the ballad “Won’t Make That Mistake Again” has a ’50s rock n’ roll feel. “All Along” is a mid-tempo shuffle punctuated by a crisp guitar solo from Randlett, who also shows his slide guitar chops on Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” backing a sensitive vocal from Keenum. The pair share lead vocals on the slow blues “She’s Gone.”

The lively Hill Country-flavored “Early In The Morning” welcomes Little Mike back on harmonica, and Keenum lets her hair down on the next pair, the feisty “Get Lit” and “Minute Man,” a playful variation of the old “Sixty Minute Man” theme. The disc closes with the story song, “Born With Wings,” and the haunting blues “How Long.”

Keenum’s vocal talents and Randlett’s spot-on guitar work are a pretty formidable combination, and they’re backed well by Little Mike and Nicole Wagner (bass), Rusty Valentine (drums), and Mitch Rogers (keys). Hauntings will press all the right buttons for music fans who dig blues and soul, with a bit of gospel and soul mixed in.

--- Graham Clarke

Trevor SewellBritish singer/songwriter/guitarist Trevor Sewell has worked for many years as a session musician, finally deciding to go solo about five years ago. To say that he’s been successful would be an understatement, with five albums released, six American tours, and a number of international music awards to his credit. His fifth release, Calling Nashville, is subtitled “An Americana Adventure,” and that’s makes perfect sense.

Sewell’s strength is the blues, but this interesting and varied release also gives a nod to several related musical styles along the course of its 11 tracks. The opener, “Some Day,” is an intriguing mix of country (with fiddle) and blues rock (with the crunchy electric guitar), “Mountain of Gold” is a soulful ballad that proves the trip between Memphis and Nashville is not that far, and “Fade To Grey” is a smoke-filled jazz duet with Janis Ian (who also plays piano on this and several other tracks).

“Matter of Time” is a tasty mid-tempo blues-rocker, which leads to another duet, this time with the terrific Tracy Nelson (“Long Time Ago”), who hasn’t lost an inch off her fastball. Next up is the swinging shuffle “You Ain’t What I’m Looking For,” which showcases some fine fretwork from Sewell, the defiant “Tear It Down,” which leans toward the country side, and the loping rocker “Stand Next To Him,” both of which feature Kellne Michael Weinrich’s fiddle.

“The Way You Are” is a slower tempo country rocker that works well, especially the twangy guitar work, and “Blanket of Hope” has an exhilarating gospel feel to it with the female backing vocals and Tim McDonald’s whirling Hammond B3 backing. The closer, “Shadows” is a wonderfully tender closing ballad (done in one take), featuring Sewell’s best vocal on the album, backed by Ian on piano.

Sewell’s nimble guitar work is reminiscent of Mark Knopfler and his gruff, weathered vocal style will remind listeners of Knopfler and maybe Chris Rea. The supporting cast of musicians does a fantastic job. Calling Nashville is a strong release that will appeal to music fans of several genres.

--- Graham Clarke

Leonard GriffieLeonard Griffie has been playing guitar since the age of 11, his earliest influences being Elvis (via his older sister’s record collection) and the Bakersfield-style country guitar his father played. He was soon drawn to soul and R&B via his own preferences and by the age of 18 was playing five nights a week in Los Angeles area clubs, beginning to shift toward the blues, influenced by Freddie King, T-Bone Walker, Otis Rush, Magic Sam and jazz guitarist Grant Green. All of these musical sources reflect in his current guitar attack, as heard on his most recent album, Better Late Than No Time Soon (Pangoboy Productions).

Griffie is also a prolific songwriter, having written or co-written all 14 tracks on the new release. He covers a wide range of subjects in a broad variety of styles, mostly focusing on the R&B/Soul/Jazz side of the blues. The opener, “Look Me In The Eye,” is a peppy rocker with horns, while “I’m Not Like That” has a funky R&B vibe, and “I Got News” is horn-fueled soul. “What’s A Man To Do” and “What You Got is What You Get” blend blues with pop and rock effectively, while “Leave This Town” is a full-blown blues shuffle, lyrically and musically.

“I Do Love You” has a smooth groove that mixes blues and R&B, and “You Done Stepped In It Now” is a stylish blues track with some fine slide guitar from Griffie. The downbeat “Goin’ Downhill” also showcases some excellent guitar work and the title track is a well-done, optimistic straight blues. There’s also a great pair of instrumentals, “Up And At ‘Em” and “I’m Good Where I’m At,” which show Griffie’s jazz guitar chops to be quite impressive.

Griffie plays all guitars, and synths where heard, plus bass on one track. He’s backed by a strong unit that includes Doug McAlister (bass), Mark Stever (drums), Gordon Greeley (saxes), Randy Scherer (trumpet) and Michael Vannice (keyboards).

Better Late Than No Time Soon is a well-crafted set of modern blues and R&B from Leonard Griffie. Though he’s known as “The Guitar Monster,” Griffie shows with this effort that he’s a pretty fearsome singer and songwriter as well.

--- Graham Clarke

Kelly ZWhile you may not know who Kelly Z is, if you’re a blues fan you are more than likely familiar with Kelly’s Lot, which was founded in the mid ’90s by Kelly Zirbes (a.k.a. Kelly Z). The L.A.-based Kelly’s Lot has released 11 albums and has toured nationally and internationally, and the band’s Live In Brussels set was reviewed in the March, 2014 edition of Blues Bytes. Zirbes began recording a solo album of ’60s-era rock, funk, and R&B classics in 2011 with producer Chuck Kavooras at Slide Away Studios, but the project was never completed.

When Zirbes and Kavooras started discussing another project recently, Kavooras happened to remember the eight tracks completed in 2011 and played them for Zirbes. Both decided that the songs were too good to sit on the shelf and decided to finish the project, now entitled Rescue, and featuring a full horn section, a core band of Rick Reed (bass), John Marx (guitar), Bryan Head (drums), and Mo Beeks (keys), and special guest vocalists Teresa James, Shari Puorto, and Lisa Orloff Staley.

Kelly Z’s vocals pack a punch, equal doses blues, soul, and rock n’ roll, and she just rips through these eight songs, from the James Brown funk workout that kicks off the album, “What Do I Have To Do”) to a tender, but tough reading of the Burt Bacharach standard, “Baby It’s You,” to Michael Bloomfield’s splendid slow blues “You Don’t Realize,” to a pair of tunes associated with Tina Turner – “It’s Gonna Work Out Fine” (with guitarist Perry Robinson in the “Ike” role) and the rocker “Trying To Find My Mind.”
Both Patsy Cline and Candi Staton had success with Harlan Howard’s “He Called Me Baby,” and Kelly Z’s sensitive version is closer to Staton’s, and her version of Isaac Hayes’ “Do Your Thing” is certain to get pulses racing and temperatures rising. The closer is pretty interesting, too --- the Governor Jimmie Davis hit “You Are My Sunshine,” redesigned as a thundering funk workout.

Thank goodness Kelly Z and Chuck Kavooras managed to rescue this stellar eight-song set for public consumption. Ms. Zirbes is always a pleasure to hear and she does a wonderful job with these tunes. Hopefully, the two will still work on another project in the near future.

--- Graham Clarke

Andrea MarrSri-Lankan-born, Australian based-singer Andrea Marr has certainly earned her share of accolades since forming her own blues band in 1999. She was Australian Female Blues Artist of the Year in 2009, and was twice awarded the Blues Performer of the Year (2005, 2012), while representing Australia at the I.B.C. two times. Though she’s enjoyed much success in the blues world, Marr’s always had a serious jones for soul music, such as the Motown/Stax/James Brown/Aretha Franklin/Otis Redding/Sharon Jones variety.

Natural is the singer’s first completely soul-based effort, and she’s backed by her eight-piece soul band, The Funky Hitmen. The new album is actually an expansion of the five-song EP, Sass and Brass, released in 2013 on the Blue Skunk Music label, with an additional six songs recently completed. The 11 tracks include nine originals authored or co-authored by Marr with two dynamite covers.

Stax Records fans will love the rousing opener, “Force of Nature,” with Marr’s testifying backed by a powerhouse horn section. If that doesn’t get folks moving, the deep earthy funk from her cover of Aretha Franklin’s “Rock Steady” should do the trick. “Mama Got It Wrong Sometimes Too” is a fast-moving tribute to Marr’s mother, who passed away several years ago, and the sweet R&B tune “Grateful” finds the singer imploring others to take nothing for granted. “That’s Where Love Ends” is a slow burner that blends soul and blues effectively, and Marr gives it one of her best vocal performances on the disc.

“Let’s Take It To The Bedroom” is a sweaty and salacious soul blues, and the fast-paced “Credit” will put people in motion. Marva Whitney’s late ’60s classic “What Do I Have To Do” soars into James Brown territory (with a monster trumpet solo by Hitman Sean Rankin), and the funky “Snakes” may remind listeners of the early ’70s O’Jays sides with its warning about liars and cheaters. “Real Good Man” finds Marr paying tribute to her significant other, and the soulful closer “Sticks And Stones” deftly mixes jazz with R&B.

Marr’s vocals prove her undying love to this style of music. She displays amazing range and power throughout, and hopefully, she will revisit the genre soon. Though the sessions for Natural were about five years apart with a few cast changes among The Funky Hitmen, the disc comes together perfectly and will seem like nectar from the gods for fans of old school soul and R&B from the ’60s and ’70s.

--- Graham Clarke

Jeff FettermanPennsylvania-based blues-rock guitarist Jeff Fetterman recently earned a spot at the 2018 I.B.C., representing the Billtown Blues Association in Williamsport, Pennsylvania. Fetterman and his band have supported several national acts, such as The Rides, Kenny Wayne Shepherd, Ana Popovic, Jimmy Thackery, Indigenous, and Chris Duarte, and Fetterman has landed several songs on TV shows, including TNT’s The Closer, the NBC soap opera Passions, and the Spanish film, The Tough Guy.

9 Miles To Nowhere (Green Tea Music) is the follow-up to Fetterman’s well-received 2015 release, Bottle Full Of Blues, and features ten new originals from Fetterman and his band (Ralph Rettinger, III – bass, John McGuire – drums, Eric Brewer – guitars, Judy Kessler – vocals/percussion). Fetterman is a fine, tough vocalist and his guitar playing shows several influences (SRV, KWS, Duarte, B.B. King, Indigenous’ Mato Nanji, Jimi Hendrix) that he deftly mixes with his own style.

Fetterman’s originals include the funky opener “Somebody Get Me A Doctor,” the old school southern rocker “Something Just Ain’t Right,” the ominous “Devil Knockin’ At My Door,” and “Brand New Day,” a mid-tempo blues rocker with a bit of a Magic Sam riff as its backbone. “Lover Man” is a real cool Texas-styled shuffle, and “Goodbye John Brown” has a snappy drum pattern and a swampy southern feel.

“Broken Hearted” is a smooth-as-glass blues ballad that’s reminiscent lyrically of B.B. King. Fetterman plays some mighty fine guitar on this track and does a nice job vocally as well. The powerful “Early Grave” is a driving blues rocker with plenty of tasty fretwork, “Bad Feeling” is a sizzling rock n’ roller, and the closer, “These Arms Of Mine,” is a soulful ballad that’s a bit of a change of pace from the rest of the album, but Fetterman turns in an intense vocal that really sells it.

9 Miles To Nowhere is an impressive set of original tunes that show Jeff Fetterman to be a versatile singer, guitarist, and songwriter, who deserves to be heard.

--- Graham Clarke

Peter WardGuitarist Peter Ward grew up in Lewiston, Maine, where he and his brothers listened to blues records and caught performances by many of the blues legends (Muddy Waters, Buddy Guy, Junior Wells, Taj Mahal, Hubert Sumlin, etc…) whenever they traveled through the area. He also played blues with his brothers: bass player Michael “Mudcat” Ward (currently with Sugar Ray Norcia & the Bluetones) and his late brother Jeff, who passed away in 1991. After moving to Boston, he played with various artists, including Norcia & the Bluetones, Jimmy Rogers, Lowell Fulson, Joe Beard, and the Legendary Blues Band.

In recent years, Ward has been writing songs, and he decided to put together a solo project, Blues On My Shoulders (Gandy Dancer Records), which includes guest appearances by many of his friends, including Earl, Sax Gordon Beadle, and the members of the Bluetones (Norcia – harmonica/vocals, Monster Mike Welch – guitar, Anthony Geraci – piano, Neil Gouvin – drums, and brother Michael on bass).

Ward wrote the words and music to 12 of the 13 tracks (the lone cover is a swinging read of Jim Jackson’s “Kansas City Blues”). Three of the originals are instrumentals: “On The Ropes” is a Duane Eddy-twangy affair that finds Ward trading guitar licks with Earl and Welch, backed by Geraci’s dazzling work on the keys and Norcia’s harmonica, while “Shiprock” is more of a stripped-down affair with Ward turning in some excellent fretwork, and “Southpaw,” a tribute to left-handed swing guitarist Dickie Thompson, um….swings, with Ward’s liquidy riffs being complemented by Rusty Scott’s Hammond B3.

Ward’s lyrics are original and will put a smile on even the grumpiest face. The good-natured shuffle “She Took It All” describes a woman who split with everything. The playful “Which Hazel” is a tribute to Chuck Berry, and the freewheeling title track features Norcia and Welch in prominent roles. Norcia takes the mic for the smoky jazz ballad, “Collaborate,” a tribute to Robert Lockwood, Jr. and Lonnie Johnson.

“What Can I Do To You” and “It’s On Me” are both clever showpieces for Ward’s songwriting, the former about a clerk in a store full of beauties and the latter featuring the guy with no money who offers to pay the tab. “A Little More” is a slow blues (featuring Welch on guitar) that finds Ward reflecting on why his woman left him, and the acoustic “Colletta,” a tale of a marriage gone sour, features Eric Kilburn on mandolin. The closer, “Drummin’ Willie,” pays loving tribute to Willie “Big Eyes” Smith and his bandmates from Ward’s tenure with the Legendary Blues Band.

Peter Ward’s first solo project is definitely a keeper. Loaded with great original tunes and stellar musicianship, Blues On My Shoulders will ring true for any blues fan.

--- Graham Clarke

61 Ghosts61 Ghosts consists of Joe Mazzari (guitar/vocals) and Dixie (drums/percussion/backing vocals). Mazzari played guitar for Johnny Thunders, and has led his own bands (The Daughters, The Two Saints, and The Joe Mazzari Band) as well as recording with famed producer Jimmy Miller. Fans of the late Leo “Bud” Welch have heard Dixie’s rock solid backing during his brief, but memorable time in the spotlight, but she also played for the All Night Long Blues Band, releasing three albums of Mississippi Hill Country blues.

They are joined by J.D. Sipe on bass for their recently issued EP, ...to the Edge (Bluzpik Media Group). The six-song set combines the hypnotic rhythms of the Hill Country sound with raw and ragged rock n’ roll, which is exemplified by the fierce rocking “Heartbeat,” which opens the disc. “No One At Your Door” is a fast-paced rocker that wouldn’t have been out of place on a Ramones record, and the moody “World Gone Crazy” slows things down via tempo, but not intensity. “If Tears Were Dirt” begins in the same laid-back mode, but slowly builds into a molten meltdown of blues, punk, and grunge.

Interestingly, the final two tracks provide an acoustic change of pace. “Show Me Your Scars” is filled with emotion, via Mazzari’s guitar and his subdued vocals, and “Passion Tipped Arrow” explores Americana territory. Both of the closing tracks show that the group is no one-trick pony, as these two tunes are as powerful and effective as the quartet of raucous blues rockers that preceded them.

Clocking in at just over 20 minutes, ...to the Edge packs quite a punch, nevertheless, which bodes well for any full-length efforts that 61 Ghosts will hopefully offer up next to the blues world.

--- Graham Clarke

Al CorteVeteran singer Al Corte’s debut album, Seasoned Soul, was an excellent set of classic blues and soul tunes lovingly rendered by one of the finest voices currently practicing in the blues and soul genres. The sequel, Mojo, mines much of the same musical territory, but where Seasoned Soul focused on covers, Mojo offers a dozen brand new originals, written by Corte’s musical partner, Ron Miller, with the singer assisting on several tracks.

Oh, yeah, Corte’ also recorded the new album at Royal Studios in Memphis backed by no less than the Hi Rhythm Section (Leroy Hodges – bass, Michael Toles – guitar, Rev. Charles Hodges – B3, and Steve Potts - drums, the Royal Singers, Royal Horns, and Royal Strings, the Tennessee Mass Choir, plus Brad Webb (slide guitar) and John Németh (harmonica), so there’s that, too. Talk about a dream session…..this had to be as close to Heaven on Earth as it gets for Corte’! At least it seems that way, based on his performance.

Mojo kicks off with the title track, a horn-driven affair that captures the Memphis sound perfectly, followed by “Love Thang,” a smooth mid-tempo ballad that would have fit nicely on an Otis Clay album, and “Memphis Moon,” a sultry soul burner that gives Corte’ an opportunity to flex his vocal muscles. “I’ll Never Lose My Love For The Blues” is superb, with Brad Webb’s slide guitar backing Corte’, and the funky soul of “Juke Joint Jive” combines horns and Németh’s smoking harmonica.

“Blessed To Have You Near” sounds like vintage Hi Records with those wonderful strings and glorious backing vocals. Corte’ really delivers on this one, and Charles Hodges shines on piano. The optimistic “It’s A Good Day” grooves along with a positive and inspirational message, while the upbeat “I’m Ready” and “Touch” both have a bit of ’70s R&B and pop mixed with soul. “What You Hold” is country soul in the Arthur Alexander tradition and Németh’s harmonica makes another appearance, and “We’re Just a Boy and a Girl” and the closer, “You Hurt Me So Good,” are a fine pair of soul ballad.

At 70, Corte’ sings with the grit, passion, and soul of a man half his age, and…..really…..when you’re working with this awesome group of musicians (just hearing Charles Hodges play the B3 gives me goose bumps every time), who never fail to impress or amaze with their superlative musicianship, how could you not give it your very best. That’s just what Al Corte’ does on Mojo and I hope he decides to do it again soon.

--- Graham Clarke

Kings & AssociatesFor their second release, the Australian band Kings & Associates spent two years writing, touring and recording ten new songs. They enlisted Jim Scott (Rolling Stones, Tedeschi Trucks Band, Sting, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Matchbox 20, etc.) as engineer and producer. The album was mixed in Nashville by Grammy winner Vance Powell. In between, the band squeezed in a semi-final finish at the 2017 I.B.C.’s, so it was a busy year spent mostly in the road for the band (Angela Portolesi – vocals/tambourine, Benjamin Cunningham – vocals/electric guitar, Stephen Portolesi – acoustic/electric guitar, Kelvin Sugars – drums/percussion/acoustic guitar, Matt Williams acoustic/electric guitar).

The new album, Tales Of A Rich Girl (Big Wing Records), combines the blues with funk, soul, R&B, gospel, rock and country, resulting in a distinctive and captivating concoction. The opener, “Truth Be Told,” manages to fuse rock, blues, and gospel with Cunningham and Angela Portolesi trading vocals supported by heavenly backing voices. The title track appears twice, first as a slinky, electric track with slide guitar and Ms. Portolisi’s lovely vocals, then later as a live acoustic version, re-titled and slightly revamped lyrically as “Tales of A Rich Man,” with vocals from Benjamin.

“Deadwood” is a feisty blues rocker with harmonica from Geo Heathcote, and “Nitty Gritty” has a strong southern rock and soul feel, similar to Tedeschi Trucks Band’s current repertoire. The fabulous “Peace X Peace” is a gospel-styled hymn that showcases guest Louie Higuera’s B3, Portolisi’s soft angelic voice, Benjamin’s powerful, evangelical testifying, and wonderful choir-like vocals that carry the song to a masterful conclusion. If this one doesn’t light your fire, your wood must be wet.

The haunting “Pabla’s Grace” is another standout, while the inspiring “Evergreen” merges blues and folk with a plea to endure through the rough times until better days come. The funky rocker “All That’s Good” picks up the pace, which increases even more with “Charlie B,” a smoking hot R&B piece in the James Brown/Sly Stone tradition, before moving into country/Americana territory with the good-natured romp, “God Bless Mamma.” Benjamin and Portolisi team up for the soulful slow burner, “1000 Ways,” that closes the album.

Tales Of A Rich Girl is a most impressive release that’s sure to please any music fans that gives it a spin. Loaded with great songs and performances from start to finish, it proves that great things are ahead for this amazing band.

--- Graham Clarke

Lara - Blue DawgzOut Here In The Blue (Lock Alley Music) is the third release from the Nashville-based blues band Lara & the Bluz Dawgz, and it’s a strong and savvy set of original songs written by the band, which consists of Lara Germony (vocals), her husband Gregg (bass), Dan Nadasdi (keyboards), Al Rowe (guitar), Carlos Ruiz (drums), and Reggie Murray (sax). Lara Germony has a pure and engaging voice that works well in multiple music settings and the band remains solid as a rock in support.

The swinging “Easy Come, Easy Go” gets the disc started, followed by the midtempo “Do What You Do,” which showcases some strong fretwork from Rowe. The title track is a slow, smoky blues ballad, and “Catch Me If You Can” leans toward jazz. Both tracks feature superlative work from sax man Murray and the rest of the Dawgz. “Walk Away” is a fine smooth blues rocker with Rowe’s guitar hitting the spot just right, and the exuberant instrumental jam “Smoke Break” marks the halfway point of the disc, allowing the band getting a few moments in the spotlight.

“Love Slips Away” is another smooth blues ballad with great musical interludes from Murray and Rowe, followed by “Where You Been,” which deftly mixes pop and R&B. “Custom Made” is a rocking boogie track that will get toes to tapping, and “Moonlight” is a slick, mellow old-school R&B slow dancer. The disc closes with the rousing “Wrong Question,” with Murray channelling Jr. Walker on sax.

Out Here in The Blue will please fans who like their blues on the jazzy side. Lara Germony is a talented and versatile vocalist and the Bluz Dawgz have this music down to a science.

--- Graham Clarke

Val StarrBased in Sacramento, Val Starr & the Blues Rockets started out as a rock cover band before making the move to the blues around 2010. Since then, the band has released four CDs, received significant radio airplay, appeared at multiple west coast blues festivals, including their own summer concert series, Blues On The Patio, and reached the finals in the 2012 Sacramento I.B.C. Starr began in the music business in the ’70s working for record labels, later moving to radio promotions, all while playing in rock bands and even starting several of the first streaming audio networks, including GotRadio.com.

The band (Starr – vocals/rhythm guitar, John Ellis – bass/backing vocals, Frankie Soul – guitar, Paul Farman – drums) recently released their fourth CD, I Always Turn The Blues On (Sandwich Factory Records). Starr penned all 12 tunes, most of which deal with “love and loss,” as she points out in the liner notes. The opening shuffle “High Time To Go” is an example, as is “You Better Stop,” the countrified blues “Please Don’t Go Away Mad,” “Bad Luck & The Blues” (a bump-and-grinder featuring Tim Barron on harmonica), and “Out With The Old,” a spirited shuffle. “Blind Eye” is another standout along the same theme and includes guitar work from guest Steve Wall.

Starr includes a few other tunes of different themes. The title track is her love letter to the blues, spiced up by Todd Morgan’s jazzy piano and Barron’s harmonica, while “Whether Blues” addresses society’s current issues (with Bay Area guitarist Daniel Castro contributing some fiery guitar). Starr has a good time with “The Baby Mama Song,” a spicy, soulful number, does a fine job on the after-hours slow burner “Bye Bye,” and will make everyone smile on “It’s Always Somethin’,” the closer that everyone can relate to.

The Blues Rockets have a great sound together and nimbly handle the variety of blues styles, getting assistance from a few guest musicians, including Barron, Castro, Wall, Morgan, and Guyle Taber (drums). Their new release is a well-crafted set of original tunes that display their versatility and love for the blues.

--- Graham Clarke

Jim VegasBorn and raised in Colorado, Jim Vegas has spent time in L.A., Denver, and Chicago, eventually settling in Wichita. He describes the music from his latest album, Soul Shattered Sister (Goonzy Magoo Records) as “Alternative blues with an emphasis on the song,” and his music does combine some qualities of blues and jazz with some pop, rock, and reggae sensibilities as well. The new release, Vegas’ fourth solo album, features 11 original songs.

The title track starts things off, a swinging rocker about a love in crisis, which Vegas wrote last year during election time to reflect on the polarized state of the nation. “Bad Fruit In The Yard” has a ’70s retro pop feel, thanks in part to Luke Young’s saxophone and the vocal harmonies, and “Till The Whole Thing Blows” is reminiscent of the R&B of the same era, but finds Vegas fretting about the world’s future. “Not That Strong” is one of the most blues-oriented cuts on the disc, a “seduced and abandoned” tale taking on a John Lee Hooker-style boogie, with great slide guitar from Vegas, and the upbeat “Love Is Coming Back Around” comes from the reggae side of the street.

“Everything You Don’t Need” is a mid-tempo rocker about a relationship on the skids, and “Fairweather Friend” has a catchy beat and a smooth turn on sax from Luke Young. “Lightning Hit The Box” leans toward jazz and sounds like a long-lost Steely Dan cut, with Young’s smoky sax being a real highlight. “Life Is Hard” stays in a jazz vein, and the closer, “Sun Is Gonna Smile,” is an optimistic pop/jazz ballad.
Soul Shattered Sister is a fine set of blues mixed with jazz, pop, and rock. Vegas’ songwriting and themes are first-rate and the work in support of Vegas by the band (Luke Young – sax/clarinet, Sam Young – bass, Philip Holmes – drums, Carter Green – percussion/drums, Vegas – vocals, guitars, keyboards, bass, percussion) is top notch as well. This set should satisfy fans of numerous musical genres beyond the blues.

--- Graham Clarke



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