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January 2020

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Order these featured CDs today:

Mark Hummel

11 Guys Quartet

Delbert McClinton

Battle of the Blues

Jack De Keyzer

JP Soars

Eliza Neals

Arsen Shomakhov

Blue Moon Marquee

Lauren Anderson

Bywater Call


Mark HummelIf you are into the sound of the very early Chicago blues, especially digging artists like Tampa Red, John Lee (Sonny Boy) Williamson and Robert Nighthawk, then be sure to check out the latest from west coast harmonica player extraordinaire Mark Hummel. Taking his regular band and a bunch of special guests into the powerhouse Greaseland Studios in San Jose, Hummel and the gang emerged with 16 cuts of true downhome Chicago blues for his latest release, Wayback Machine (Electro-Fi Records). It's an appropriate name for this trip back to the early 1940s, so let's hop on this wayback machine to hear some very fine vintage Windy City blues.

Let's go to the back end of the CD first. Hummel hooked up with Mississiippi Delta artist / current Rochester, N.Y. resident Joe Beard for the final three cuts on the album, and they turn out to be the icing on the cake (or perhaps the hot sauce on the catfish) for this album. Despite being past the age of 80, Beard still has a powerful voice, as heard on his version of Eddie Boyd's "Five Long Years." "Say You Will," a Hummel composition, is a solid country blues with just Beard's acoustic guitar and vocals. Rounding out this triumvirate of tunes is a version of Big Boy Crudup's "Mean Old Frisco," with Hummel joining in on harmonica. These three cuts are worth the price of admission by themselves.

Now, for the rest of the album. Hummel and band do three Sonny Boy #1 songs --- "Cut That Out," "Good Gal" and "Reefer Head Woman." Billy Flynn contributes tasteful guitar accompaniment on all three songs, while Dave Eagles rubs away on the washboard on "Cut That Out."

Tampa Red (aka Hudson Whittaker) is well-represented, with a couple of his classic recordings --- "So Much Trouble," with Aaron Hammerman contributing very nice piano accompaniment and Flynn coming in later with a strong guitar solo, and an outstanding version of "Play With Your Poodle."

Of the Jazz Gillum songs covered here, my favorite is the old timey "Crazy About You," with Hummel's harp, Hammerman's piano and Eagle's drumming with brushes all coming together for a pleasant, fun number. "Gillum's Windy Blues" is an up-tempo blues that's just plain fun.

It wouldn't be an early Chicago blues collection without at least one contribution from Robert Nighthawk (aka R. Lee McCollum), and here we get Hummel and Flynn shining on the traditional 12-bar blues "Pepper Mama."

There's lots more here, with 16 cuts providing tremendous quantity in addition to quality. Wayback Machine should be on your early year shopping list. While Hummel has recorded plenty of quality stuff throughout his long career, this wayback trip into the past now moves to the top spot on his discography.

--- Bill Mitchell

11 Guys QuartetThe 11th Hour Band was part of the Boston blues scene starting in the early '80s, recording an album for the Tone-Cool label back in 1985. While this quartet had other ventures going on, they still found time to hit the clubs periodically. Consisting of Richard Rosenblatt (harmonica), Paul Lenart (guitar), Bill "Coach" Mather (bass) and Chuck Purro (drums), the gang got together again in 2008 to record 14 instrumental numbers, but waited more than a decade to release the recordings. Here it is --- Small Blues and Grooves (VizzTone) by the 11 Guys Quartet --- finally available to the record-buying public.

Rosenblatt is the most recognizable name, best known as the founder and president of VizzTone. (To better understand Rosenblatt's standing in the blues world today, check out how many albums from the VizzTone group of labels show up on our lists of top albums from 2019!). More than just a blues entrepreneur, Rosenblatt is also a very fine harmonica player with his harp blowing being the best part of this album.

Your appreciation for the music on this album will depend on how you feel about an entire set of instrumentals, realizing that it's not everyone's thing. The best cut is the rambunctious "Hey Daddyo," starting with high energy, rhythmic drumming by Purro followed by Rosenblatt raising the temperature in the room with his harmonica work as well as a nice guitar solo from Lenart.

More favorites are other up-tempo smokers, such as "East Cambridge Cannonball" and the blues shuffle "Four Maypops," the latter again giving Lenart a chance to shine. The appropriately-named "Jackrabbit" is another rapid-paced number, with Rosenblatt blowing away on his harmonica.

Small Blues and Grooves is not one that I'd put on a "must have" list, but it's a nice collection from four cats who have been around for a long, long time.

--- Bill Mitchell

Chris ShuttersChris Shutters is not a household name in the blues world. While Shutters and his band are all competent musicians, an album by them is not likely to attract too much attention. But add Chicago blues veteran Jimmy Burns to the mix, and suddenly you have my attention. After planning for several years to collaborate on an album, Shutters and Burns got into the studio in late 2018 to record Good Gone Bad (Third Street Cigar Records).

Perhaps it goes without saying that the best cuts on Good Gone Bad are those that feature Burns on vocals, and I don't think I'm insulting the rest of the musicians by stating this. Now in his mid-70s, he's still got a strong voice and is truly a blues legend.

"No Consideration" is one of the highlights of the disc, a mid-tempo Burns original blues with good vocals by Burns and strong guitar accompaniment by Shutters. "Miss Annie Lou" is a pleasant blues shuffle with Burns stepping back to the mic and both guitarists getting their licks in. In the same vein is "Stop The Train," with Burns again contributing his soulful bluesy voice.

Shutters takes the lead on his own hard driving blues, "Unwind," showing that he's a pretty good artist in his own right. Another Shutters original, the fast-paced "Can't Play the Blues like B.B.," gives the band leader another chance to show off with rapid-fire guitar licks.

"Poor By Blue" is a gem, perhaps the best cut here. It's a country blues written by Shutters who accompanies Burns' vocals with nice acoustic guitar. The title cut that opens the album is an up-tempo shuffle with Shutters and Burns sharing guitar and vocal duties.

Good Gone Bad is another very good album in the Jimmy Burns collection, and it's nice that Shutters and his band get the chance to get their name out there.

--- Bill Mitchell

Delbert McClintonMost music fans would probably not have an issue if Delbert McClinton was content to just sit back and reflect on the accolades received from fans and critics alike on a superb 60-year career. After all, he is a five-time Grammy nominee, a three-time winner, and has a huge catalog of albums and an impressive list of songs that have been recorded by artists in the blues, soul, country, and rock genres. He’s beloved by fans of the blues, Americana (Rolling Stone dubbed him “The Godfather of Americana Music”), rock, country, and R&B, and they still pack the house whenever he performs.

Fortunately, the Texas troubadour did not follow that career path of resting on his laurels, continuing to release excellent albums on a regular basis, the latest being Tall, Dark, & Handsome (Hot Shot Records). Joining McClinton are longtime keyboardist Kevin McKendree and the Self-Made Men + Dana (Dana Robbins – saxophone, Jack Bruno – drums, Mike Joyce – bass, Bob Britt – guitar, James Pennebaker – guitar, Quinton Ware – trumpet, Dennis Wage – keys). The same band supported McClinton on his previous release, Prick Of The Litter, but where that disc leaned more toward the mellow side, Tall, Dark, & Handsome jumps and wails, perfectly capturing McClinton’s own restless musical spirit as it tackles a variety of blues styles.

The album opens with “Mr. Smith,” a rousing start to the disc with horns blasting and McKendree’s piano and an irresistible swing rhythm. The down-on-my-luck “If I Hock My Guitar” has a slinky serpentine rhythm with ringing guitar from Britt, and the acoustic “No Chicken On The Bone” has a real gypsy vibe with mandolin from Brent and fiddle from Stuart Duncan. “Let’s Get Down Like We Used To” has a New Orleans feel, with a cool clarinet solo from Jim Hoke, and the swinging tango “Gone To Mexico” takes us south of the border.

The after-hours ballad, “Lulu,” deftly blends blues and jazz, and “Loud Mouth” makes me feel good because it’s a lively, prototypical Delbert McClinton tune that fans will feel like they’ve heard before. “Down In The Mouth” is a Texas-styled shuffle, the jaunty “Ruby and Jules” is a story about a complex relationship, and “Any Other Way” is a lovely, low-key ballad. The lively “A Fool Like Me” picks up a second line shuffle, and McClinton reflects on his life with the shuffle “Can’t Get Up.” The album closes with the spooky “Temporarily Insane,” and a Delta blues snippet, “A Poem.”

Delbert McClinton recently turned 79, and is moving into his eighth decade as a performer. Tall, Dark, & Handsome shows he’s not resting on his laurels. He’s still got plenty to say and plenty worth hearing.

--- Graham Clarke

Chicago vs OaklandWhen I first started listening to the blues, one of my favorite types of album was the anthology sets that basically served as a sampler platter (no pun intended) of a choice set of musicians. These sets usually encouraged me to dig deeper so I could hear more of the represented artists. Battle of the Blues: Chicago Vs Oakland (Delta Roots Records) is a modern-day example of those recordings, capturing 13 tracks from artists from both areas who may have slipped through the cracks over the years.

Label chief Twist Turner, whose drumming backed several Chicago legends for well over a half century, relocated to Oakland for six years and began working on an album designed to bring attention to the artists of the underrated (and under-recorded) Bay Area blues scene. After a couple of health scares, Turner relocated to Chicago with only a portion of the album completed, so he decided to complete the set with previously unreleased tracks (some dating back to the early ’90s) he had recorded with several Windy City blues artists, hence the Chicago Vs Oakland theme.

Mz. Sumac (daughter of bluesman Craig Horton), Aldwin London, 91-year-old Nat Bolden, the late Country Pete McGill, and lap steel guitar legend Freddie Roulette represent the Bay Area, while James Newman, Del Brown, Gerald McClendon, and the late Emery Williams, Jr. represent Chicago. A host of familiar faces back these artists, ranging from guitarists Rusty Zinn, Maurice John Vaughan, and Dave Workman, to keyboardists Roosevelt Purifoy and Alan Batts, to bassists E.G. McDaniel and Dave Forte, with Turner providing his usual impeccable drumming on all tracks.

Most of the music is of the soul blues variety, incorporating elements of R&B and funk into the mix as well. On the Oakland side, Mz. Sumac gets things started with a stinging, but soulful rebuke of her “Broke Ass Man,” followed by London, who turns in a fine reading of Willie Nelson’s “Funny How Time Slips Away” (also playing bass on this track plus four others). Roulette’s instrumentals, “Take It Easy” and “Red Tide,” each capture his imaginative lap steel guitar effectively. Bolden does an exquisite, slow-burning “Good Morning Mr. Blues,” with sublime, T-Bone-esque guitar work from Zinn. McGill’s contribution, “Hoochie Coochie Mama,” is a downhome, bump- and-grind with Roulette supplying supple lap steel support.

On the Chicago side, Newman, who once played bass for Magic Sam, gets two sides, the silky R&B track “Hit And Run Lover” and “Me And My Guitar,” both of which feature Mark Wydra’s crisp fretwork. Brown, dubbed “Mr. Excitement,” gets a pair of tracks as well, amazingly his first as a front man; the powerful “Now That I’ve Gone” and the reflective “Time Slippin’ Away.” McClendon’s lone contribution is one of the highlights, “Cold In The Streets,” a slow burning soul blues that should be burning up the soul blues charts if there’s any justice in the world. The late Emery Williams, Jr. (who passed away from cancer in 1996) gets two excellent tracks, the smoldering “Hurtin’ On You” and the stirring “Mama Don’t Weep,” the latter closing the disc.

So the question is, who WON the Battle of the Blues between Chicago and Oakland??!! That’s an easy one --- blues fans all around are the winners. This is a superb collection of music from talented artists that you might have never heard previously, but thanks to Twist Turner’s efforts, you’ll hopefully have a chance to hear more from some of them in the future.

--- Graham Clarke

Jack DeKeyzerI’ve been listening to the blues for well over 30 years and thought I had covered the bases pretty completely during that span. So why in the world had I never heard Jack De Keyzer until his latest release, Checkmate (Blue Star Records)??!! Oh, sure, I’d heard of him, good things actually, but seriously, how did I manage to go this long without checking out this guy? Based in Canada, the guitarist/singer has been active over 45 years, released 12 albums and a DVD, and has won two Junos and four Maple Blues Awards. He plays worldwide, 120 shows a year, and he’s even a member of the U.S. Blues Hall of Fame!

If you are like me, woefully uninformed about Jack De Keyzer, I strongly recommend you pick up this latest disc --- that’s Checkmate, once again --- to see and hear what you’ve been missing. You’ve been missing a powerful guitarist and singer whose music is steeped in the Chicago blues, which works perfectly within the context of Checkmate, as it is a tribute to Chess Records and the Chicago blues in general, featuring covers of 13 blues classics associated with some of the Windy City’s finest.

De Keyzer rips through a set that includes tunes associated with Howlin’ Wolf, beginning with a rollicking opening shot of “Howlin’ With My Darling” that gets the disc off and running, along with an appropriately menacing take of “Evil (Is Going On)” and “I Ain’t Superstitious.” Otis Rush is well-represented as well, with “All Your Love (I Miss Loving),” “Double Trouble,” and “I Can’t Quit You Baby.” Slide guitarist extraordinaire Elmore James is honored with “Stranger Blues” and “Talk To Me Baby.”

De Keyzer also ventures to Memphis on a couple of tracks with Dan Penn and Chips Moman’s soul ballad “Do Right Woman” and B.B. King’s “Days of Old.” There are also rocked-up versions of a couple of pre-war classics, Blind Willie McTell’s “Broke Down Engine” and “Walking Blues,” the traditional tune associated with Son House, Robert Johnson, and Muddy Waters. Speaking of Johnson, the album closes with an unplugged version of “Come In My Kitchen.”

Throughout the disc De Keyzer shows his virtuosity on guitar --- acoustic, electric, and slide. Vocally, he’s more than capable of handling the straight blues, blues rock, soul, and country blues. He gets fine musical support from Joel Visentin (piano, organ, trombone), Richard Thornton (tenor sax, conga, harmonica), Alan Duffy (bass), and Rick Donaldson (drums).

Checkmate is a powerful, high-energy set of blues standards that not only show Jack De Keyzer’s talents, but also his love for the music itself. I will be definitely be digging deeper into his catalog as soon as I can.

--- Graham Clarke

JP SoarsJ.P. Soars and Tab Benoit met in 2011 on a blues cruise, and the many nights they spent jamming together on that cruise and later ones inspired them to assemble at Benoit’s Whiskey Bayou studios in Houma, Louisiana, with Soars singing and playing all manner of guitar, Benoit manning the drum set and assorted instruments, with assistance from Chris Peet (bass player for Soars’ band, the Red Hots) and B3 player Tillis Verdin. The resulting session can now be heard in all of its glory via Let Go Of The Reins (Whiskey Bayou Records).

Soars had no songs prepared in advance of the session, so the songs were pretty much compiled on the fly and recorded in the same manner, giving the music (and performances) a nice looseness and spontaneity. Seven originals were penned in the days leading up to recording and four cover tunes complete the 11-song set, which is rooted in the blues, but incorporates roots, rock, funk, and R&B into the mix as well.

The opener, “Been Down So Long,” was originally recorded by J.B. Lenoir in the late ’50s. Soars’ version takes on a greasy southern rock groove, setting the bar pretty high for the remainder of the album. Happily, Soars, Benoit, and company are more than up to the challenge, keeping the southern rock feel going with a dynamite take on the Ozark Mountain Daredevils’ ’70s hit, “If You Wanna Get To Heaven,” and “Freddie King Thing,” a slippery blues rocker that pays tribute to the Texas Cannonball. The title track is a raw, hypnotic swamp blues, while “Crow’s Nest” is a splendidly funky instrumental with outstanding musicianship from all parties.

“Lonely Fire” is an understated ballad with a beautiful acoustic guitar solo from Soars. The ragged, desperate rocker “Have Mercy On My Soul” is a standout, with Soars’ growling vocal and fiery guitar work, and the countrified “Let It Ride” features Benoit on pedal steel. A cover of Django Reinhardt’s “Minor Blues” is a delightful surprise, with Soars giving it a jazzy, film noir feel, and “Time To Be Done” travels to the Crescent City, incorporating a little second line rhythm. The downhome closer, “Old Silver Bridge,” features banjo and dobro, wrapping the album up nicely.

J.P. Soars truly does Let Go Of The Reins for this fine outing, expanding his sound beyond his blues base while sticking closely to his roots at the same time. Hopefully, he and Benoit will do this again sometime in the future.

--- Graham Clarke

Eliza NealsEliza Neals’ latest project is a power-packed EP, Sweet or Mean (E-H Records), which teams the Detroit-based blues belter with another modern-day blues force of nature, Popa Chubby, who produced and arranged the set and contributes some monster guitar throughout on the six original tracks. Backed by a tough rhythm section (Dave Keyes – keyboards, John Medeiros, Jr. – drums, Chris Gambaro-Vega), Neal and Popa Chubby positively rip through these tracks, leaving scorched earth in their wake.

The opener of the EP, “Pawn Shop Blues,” is also the closer, albeit in altered form. The opening version includes saxophone from Ian Hendrickson and trumpet from Michael Leonhart, plus Popa Chubby’s scorching slide guitar and Neals’ ferocious vocal. The closing version eschews the horns, but retains the shuffle beat, the slide guitar, and Neals’ vocal might be a little bit more intense on this take. Ordinarily, one would wonder why two versions of the same song are on an EP, but both versions are so good it doesn’t really matter.

“Blackish Gray” is a rumbling, mid-tempo ballad of sorts, with Neals once again rising to the occasion with arguably her most impassioned vocal on the album. Chubby’s guitar work complements her performance marvelously. The stalwart blues rocker, “Bitten By The Blues,” is an autobiographical track. “Livin’ With Yo Mama” is a smoldering smackdown with a feisty Neals vocal and searing lead work from Chubby, who then unplugs for the driving, rocking “Knock Knock Knockin’,” which may dial back the fireworks on the set but not the intensity.

Hopefully, Sweet or Mean is merely the precursor to a full-length album collaboration between Eliza Neals and Popa Chubby. Based on these six smoking tracks, this duo has much, much more to say that blues fans will want to hear.

--- Graham Clarke

Arsen ShomakhovRussian guitarist/singer/songwriter Arsen Shomakhov currently lives in Vancouver, BC, hence the title of his latest CD, Rain City Blues. He’s competed in the I.B.C. several times, advancing to the semi-finals in 2014 and 2016, and has received a Maple Blues Award nomination during his residence in Canada. He’s built a significant following there and performs at blues festivals in Europe, Canada, and the U.S.

For Rain City Blues, his fourth album, Shomakhov traveled to Greaseland Studios in San Jose, enlisting Kid Andersen, who knows a thing or two about the blues, as producer. The album contains ten original tracks and features Shomakhov’s excellent guitar work backed by Andersen (bass, B-3, piano, vibraphone, background vocals), drummers Alexander Pettersen and Juni Core, with a guest appearance from harmonica player Ali Kumar.

The opening cut, “Full-Time Love,” has a Chicago swagger as Shomakhov reads through an impressive list of his part-time lovers (Kumar guests on this track). “No More!” is a tough old-school rocker, and “Sunset Beach” has a funky, almost island feel with a tasty solo from Shomakhov. The driving blues rocker, “Women And Whiskey,” is a bluesy cautionary tale, and “Strolling In San Jose” is a jazzy instrumental shuffle.

The title track allows Shomakhov to showcase his impressive slide guitar chops, while the greasy “Boogaloo” finds the rhythm section of Andersen and Core really settling in the pocket. The hypnotic instrumental, “Three Arrows,” is a standout, and “Sitting On A Fence” has a light New Orleans R&B feel. The album closer, “Hello Little Bird,” is a short, but fast-paced instrumental with Shomakhov strutting his stuff on guitar with steady backing from Core.

I was not familiar with Arsen Shomakhov’s music, but after listening to Rain City Blues, I plan to dig deeper. This is an excellent, well-varied set of guitar-driven blues that will satisfy any blues fan.

--- Graham Clarke

Blue Moon MarqueeBlue Moon Marquee is a Gypsy blues duo (A.W. Cardinal – vocals/guitar, Jasmine Colette – bass/vocals) from Vancouver. On their latest album, Bare Knuckles and Brawn (Blue Moon Marquee Music), the duo expands into a larger ensemble, adding guests Darcy Phillips (piano/organ), Gerry Cook (sax/clarinet), Jimmy “Hollywood” Badger (drums), Jack Garton (trumpet), and guitarist Paul Pigat. Cardinal describes their sound as a mixture of “blues and jazz, western swing and New Orleans,” and that description aptly describes the 11 original tracks presented here.

The album opens with the Latin-flavored “Big Black Mamba,” a wry look at the fuel that drives the world’s economy, and then moves to the stylish swing track “Smoke Rings For My Rider” and “Fever Flickering Flame,” which showcases the lively rhythm section. Cardinal’s edgy vocals are featured on the first three tracks, but Colette’s sultry vocals caress the noir-ish slow burner “Hard Times Hit Parade” before Cardinal returns for the gritty “As I Lay Dying.”

The lively “High Noon” salutes the Oglala Lakota holy man Black Elk, and Pigat guests on guitar for the jaunty “The Red Devil Himself.” “Big Smoke” is a straight blues tune about the ever-changing weather with nice blues guitar work from Cardinal, while the jazzy “52nd Street Strut,” with vocals from Colette, pays tribute to Billie Holiday. “Wayward” is a solid blues ballad that segues nicely into the closer, “Lost And Wild,” a wistful ballad that shows the non-gravel side of Cardinal’s vocal quite well.\

Cardinal and Colette’s vocals complement each other perfectly, and the duo’s songwriting shows a fresh approach to the blues, addressing current issues. The additional musicians add much to the proceedings as well. With Bare Knuckles and Brawn, Blue Moon Marquee takes traditional styles of music and updates them most effectively.

--- Graham Clarke

Lauren AndersonNashville-based singer Lauren Anderson got her start in the Midwest. The Chicago native has built a steady following since her 2014 EP Do & Hope. She also released a full-length album, Truly Me, and another EP, The Game, relocating to Nashville in 2017. Equally comfortable as a singer in the blues, Americana, soul, and country genres, she’s also a talented composer, writing all five songs on her latest EP, Won’t Stay Down.

The opening track, “Honey, Call Me Baby,” is a guitar-driven rocker (via Jimi Greene) showcasing Anderson’s fiery, confident vocal. “Too Little, Too Late” is sweet Memphis-based soul that puts Anderson’s versatility on full display, and the gutsy title track finds her declaring defiantly that she will overcome any obstacles facing her. “Cake” employs a rhumba beat as she laments the pigeonholing tendencies of the music industry, and the closer, “Wild & Free” (co-written by Anderson and Sandy Ramos), tells the story of a small-town girl who gave up the simple life for life in the big city.

Won’t Stay Down is a short but potent set of blues and blues rock from Lauren Anderson, a powerful new vocalist who shows enormous potential for bigger things.

--- Graham Clarke

Samantha MartinRun To Me (Gypsy Soul Records) is the eagerly awaited follow up to Samantha Martin & Delta Sugar’s highly acclaimed debut album. Send The Nightingale comprises ten original songs written either mainly by Martin or with fellow singer-songwriter and guitarist Curtis Chaffey. The best feature of this International Blues Challenge representative's nine-piece Toronto-based roots, blues and soul ensemble is Samantha’s very distinctive and commanding voice which is the key instrument. Michael McCallum is an accomplished, nimble-fingered acoustic and resonator guitar player who makes superb contributions throughout. Sherie Marshall and Mwansa Mwansa provide the harmonies and backing vocals which complement Samantha perfectly.

The opening track, “You’re The Love,” is powerful and controlled whilst the equally catchy “Gonna Find It” introduces the innovative horn section to add more than a dash of soul. The balladic “Will We Ever Learn,” with its sumptuous vocal harmonies and horn arrangement, evokes the songwriting style of Carole King. “Wanna Be Your Lover” is noteworthy for its classic line, "...You don’t need to put a ring on it / Baby just put your back into it / Cause I just want to be your lover!..."

The gospel sounding “Chasing Dreams” showcases Samantha’s impressive, throat-shredding vocals before she tackles “Good Trouble” in lighter mood, the latter showcasing Steve Marriner’s fluent keys. “Over You” is another soul-drenched slow burner, followed by the catchy singalong “This Night Is Mine.” The mood darkens with “Only So Much,” a serious message about a woman trapped in a bad relationship where the guy has a drink problem and the children go without food. Martin handles the deep emotion with sincerity and genuine feeling.

The high energy, full in your face big band sound of “All Night Long” is a fitting conclusion to a highly commendable album. It is not surprising that Samantha is a rising star in Canada’s eclectic Americana-roots scene, and this CD should enhance her reputation more widely.

--- Dave Scott

Jan JamesRaised in Michigan where she earned her first accolade as Best Female Vocalist, Jan James and her songwriter-guitarist partner Craig Calvert moved to Chicago and played the famous Legends and House Of Blues venues. She was initially signed up by the prestigious Provogue record label, and following several albums and a quarter of a century singing the blues James and her band have produced a clear statement of where they are at with Justify (Blues Palace Records).

The title track confirms the chemistry between Jan and Craig, her powerful, anguished vocals a perfect match to his searing guitar work. No wonder she was cast as Janis Joplin in a Chicago play and recognised as a major talent of similar ilk. "Good Man Down" showcases the musical prowess of all eight musicians and their collective force as a blues rock powerhouse. The rhythm section lays down a heavy groove on “A Different Life,” complementing the dark vocals. By contrast, the ballad “Try” highlights Jan’s vocal versatility with its softer mellifluous opening vibe, whilst the slow burning “Never In The Game” showcases the intricate side of Craig’s guitar repertoire.

Surprises are in store throughout, such as the quirky, up-tempo gospel inspired “Anything You Want,” with its classic line, "...He had his way with her but its okay cause/ He did it on his knees..." Referring, of course, to prayers! The many highlights include the rocking “Lucky U R,” an impressive version of Jagger and Richards “Honky Tonk Woman” and “Where You Gonna Run To,” with Jan’s voice ranging from crooner to blues blaster and all points in between.

Jan’s songwriting and vocal delivery are at their best when she is communicating her reflections on love and relationships with sincerity and candour, as in the finale, “Dangerous Decision.” She reaches her conclusion that,"...A dangerous decision has left me stranded/ And blue – A dangerous decision to fall in love with you..."’ The deep empathy of all the musicians results in a climactic, virtuosic swirling sound of coloratura-esque proportions, bringing the song and the album to a dramatic close.

Jan James has paid her dues and probably has not yet received the recognition that her inner soul deserves. Hopefully, Justify will change all that.

--- Dave Scott

Bywater CallThis seven-piece band from Canada, Bywater Call was only formed two years ago and has already been nominated as Best New Artist in the 2020 Maple Blues Awards. The first track on Bywater Call (Gypsy Soul records), “Arizona,” sets the scene as lead vocalist Meghan Parnell’s country and western style voice with its slight drawl immediately captivates the listener. The infectious rhythms, superb sax solo from Julian Nalli and background wash of Alan Zemaitis’ keys add to the feeling that this band has something special, and that is before Dave Barnes chips in with searing guitar work.

The vibe continues with the equally upbeat “Forgive,” with its swirling keys, subtle changes of pace and Stephen Dyte’s audacious trumpet solo. “Talking Backwards” confirms Meghan’s versatility and energy with her piercing, powerful vocals maintaining the relentless drive of another carefully layered song culminating in jazz infused screaming brass.

A slow burning blues, “Bring Me Down”, with its ethereal introduction is overlaid by Meghan’s sultry tones representing a chameleon quality of sounding distinctive on every song. Once again the layers of mood and instrumentation from guitar to brass create a series of crescendos. The mesmeric, balladic “Nightmare,” with its atmospheric sax and trumpet complemented by understated keys, provides the perfect platform for a voice that seems to be floating on thin air.

Funky and quirky rhythms courtesy of bassist Mike Meusel and drummer Bruce McCarthy underpin another spectacular vocal performance from Meghan on “Over and Over.” The slow nostalgic “Home Town” has a more country feel whilst the Parnell swagger returns on “Silver Lining.” All seven musicians stretch their chops on “Walk On” before the fitting finale, a sumptuously arranged and mainly acoustic rendition of “Swing Low” that leaves the listener feeling exhilarated.

The musicality and innovation of Bywater Call suggest that the band will become a major force, a forthcoming tour of Europe providing the opportunity to achieve international acclaim.

--- Dave Scott



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