I know it has been out a while now, but it's never too late to talk about a great album, and great is exactly the term to use in describing Paul deLays latest CD, deLay Does Chicago (Evidence). Of course, I don't have to tell you that Portland-based Paul deLay is a very gifted harmonica player and singer, blessed with one of the best (and most loyal) bands around. But he has chosen to record his latest project in Chicago, as the title says, with Chicago musicians (The Rockin' Johnny Band, also well known as the backing band for Jimmy Burns), in a decidedly Paul Butterfield-influenced Chicago approach, which makes this CD very different from his previous ones. It also gives it a sense of urgency or spontaneity: deLay had never worked with the band, and might never work with them again. Guest Zora Young sings a very menacing "Come on Home," while Jimmy Dawkins lends his distorted guitar sound to two songs, including the instrumental "El Train," deLay's tribute to one of Chicago's best known "attractions." This is an album where absolutely everybody shines. The band is oh so tight, with Johnny Burgin's guitar prominently featured throughout (he also sings "Only Me"), Sho Komiya, steady as a rock on bass, and Kenny "Beedy Eyes" Smith (yes, Willie "Big Eyes" Smith's son), just as great as his old man on drums. But the star of the show is definitely deLay, who sings and blows harp throughout with great feeling. He also wrote (or co-wrote) every song on the album, with plenty of standouts: "Beautiful Bones," on how (not) to pick up a girl, "Brave Woman," a beautiful declaration of love, the upbeat "Great Big Kid" and the funny "Ain't Foolin' 'Round"... actually, every track is just great. As an added bonus, on the final track we get deLay playing ... air harp (as in air guitar)! Just delightful all the way through, and highly recommended.
Another very impressive album is Montreal country-folk-blues singer Rob Lutes independently produced debut effort, Gravity. (See www.roblutes.com for info.) This is the antithesis of Chicago blues. Actually, it defies all classification efforts. It is roots music, we can agree on that, or we can simply say it's great music incorporating plenty of elements of blues lore ... just don't expect standard 12-bar blues. Though he's barely 30, Lutes has the voice of someone who's smoked and drank and lived a lifetime, and his songs tell stories that ring true. For example, "Indecision" (with its line "... And a tender word is seldom spoken/Each time you can't decide...") is about how difficult to finally say a relationship is over, and "Hometown," about how your hometown is always part of you no matter where you are. More than just a collection of great texts, singer-songwriter style, Gravity offers plenty of good music, showcasing the beautiful guitar picking of Lutes (acoustic) and accomplice Rob McDonald (electric, with some slide and dobro) and the very relaxed drumming of R.D. Harris. With plenty of songs dealing with big empty roads and skies, traveling, and estrangement from home, this is an excellent album for those long trips in the countryside, or for those days when you can't leave home but you need to let your mind soar, unhindered by gravity.
Two independently produced mini-albums dealing in opposite ways with tradition have also landed on my desk these last weeks. Hailing from Canada's capital, The Mud Boys have chosen a slightly retro approach on their Seven Faces EP (eight tracks, 35 minutes). There are the covers ("Rocket 88," rock and roll's first-ever song according to some music historians, Billy Boy Arnold's "I Wish You Would," Junior Wells' "Hoodoo Man Blues"), and there is also the very prominent 50's style piano playing of Steve Ridgley. Singer and harmonica player Dean Dupuis and guitarist Chris "Jarhead" Breitner also take their share of solos on this enjoyable effort. In keeping with the fun nature of their music, the band's Web site (www.themudboys.com) invites you to play a few games online! Stylistically opposite is Mother of Moths Delta (six tracks, 18 minutes), which goes way back to Robert Johnson and all the dark crossroads and gives it the psychedelic treatment. Or, were this a painting, I'd say the impressionistic touch. This is dark and menacing music that can only come to the surface when one is willing to face his inner devils. Singer-guitarist Patrick Archie has woven bits of Robert Johnson's "Cross Road Blues," Muddy's "I Can't be Satisfied," John Lee Hooker's "Crawlin' Kingsnake," Led Zep's "Dazed and Confused" (plus, no doubt, others I didn't identify) with some of his own lyrics, and improvised till everything suddenly sounded brand new. More info at www.motherofmoth.com ... check it out.
--- Benoît Brière
In 1980, two young German blues fans drove through the South with a reel-to-reel tape recorder hoping to record the country blues at its source. The journey was financed by L+R Records, and has become one of the last attempts at "field recordings." They were able to record 25 musicians from nine states, which resulted in L+R releasing 14 albums entitled Living Country Blues USA that were previously available only in Germany. Recently, Evidence Records compiled a three-CD "greatest hits" collection culled from those albums called Living Country Blues. The CDs are organized regionally. The first CD is subtitled Mississippi Moan, and is comprised of works by the familiar Mississippi Delta musicians (James "Son" Thomas, Othar Turner, Napoleon Strickland on harmonica, Sam Chatmon, and Lonnie Pitchford) and the unfamiliar (Tommy Johnson interpreters Arzo Youngblood and Boogie Bill Webb, the intense Boyd Rivers, and the unique Cleveland "Broomman" Jones). Some of the most moving work is by a lifelong laborer named Walter Brown, whose "Mississippi Moan" is a disturbing account of what it was like to be black in Mississippi. The second CD is subtitled Lonesome Road Blues, and encompasses the East Coast. Among the artists highlighted are Guitar Frank, Archie Edwards (his first recordings), James "Guitar Slim" Stephens (on guitar and piano), Flora Molton, and Cephas & Wiggins (their first recordings). This CD has plenty of that laidback feel familiar to fans of Piedmont blues or the work of Mississippi John Hurt (who played regularly in Edwards Washington, D.C. barber shop. The final CD is subtitled You Got To Move, and covers a broad range of Tennessee and Arkansas, as well as areas covered in the first two CDs. CeDell Davis has two tracks featuring his unique slide guitar (stricken with polio, he plays slide over the top of the neck with a butter knife). Representing Tennessee are Charlie Sangster, Hammie Nixon, Lottie Murrell, and Memphis Piano Red. This is a more diverse CD than the other two, and has some of the strongest performances (notably two tracks by Boyd Rivers, two by Othar Turner, Sam Shields instrumental, and Joe Savages "Joes Prison Camp Hollar"). The collection includes a 48-page booklet with extensive notes by Brett Bonner. The notes bring the histories of these musicians up to date. Whats disturbing is how many of these talented artists disappeared after making these recordings and never resurfaced. Most of the ones accounted for have passed away or never recorded again and it makes you wonder how many other talented blues musicians might have gone unrecorded over the years. This is an excellent collection that any blues fan should want to have. Hopefully, Evidence will release the entire L+R series in the future.
A friend sent me a CD that he thought I would like from a band in Austin, Jerry Lightfoot and the Essentials. I was not familiar with Lightfoot, only knowing that he was a guitarist from around the Austin area. His CD, called Better Days (Age Out Records), is an incredible display of his talents. Lightfoot wrote most of the songs on this CD and they seem to have an autobiographical edge (he writes in the liner notes of "seemingly being dealt hand after hand of dog-eared aces and eights," and the recording is dedicated to the memory of his father and son). Lightfoot is also a fine guitarist and singer, but he has some excellent company in the vocal department. Carolyn Wonderland and Tommie Lee Jackson sing powerful backing vocals on one track each, and Maryann Price sings lead on the closer, Blind Willie McTells "God Dont Like It." But the ace in Lightfoots hand is the presence of the legendary Jerry LaCroix (former lead singer for Edgar Winters White Trash, Blood, Sweat & Tears, and Rare Earth) on five of the ten tracks. LaCroix is simply one of the best singers out there, and its a crime that hes not better known. The entire CD is great, but LaCroix's soulful presence lifts the whole project up a notch. When he sings, "I Will Forever Sing the Blues" on one of the many great tracks here, you hope hes not lying. I have a different favorite track every time I listen to it, but two of the standouts are "My Dyin Days," where LaCroix just oozes pain and hurt, and the hard-driving "Never Get Caught Again," one of Lightfoots vocals with Wonderland backing. The only complaint I had was that it wasnt long enough, but that just leaves you wanting more. Lets hope better days (and more CDs) are ahead for Jerry Lightfoot.
--- Graham ClarkeEssential elements for good swing is it must be lithe and bluesy at the same time. Too much pop robs the swing of its soul and kills the fun. Swingin (Vitamin Records) is a collection of Grateful Dead songs rearranged by Steve Marsh into a swing/jazz/pop style. The problems with Swingin are it's too lumbering and many of the arrangements do not vary enough from the originals. Many of the arrangements sound like they were arranged for a marching band, evoking comparisons to an college marching band halftime show instead of Ellington, Basie or Roomful of Blues. This is particularly the case on "Touch of Gray," "Friend of the Devil," "Casey Jones," "Truckin" and "Cumberland Blues." There are bright spots on the disk including "Wharf Rat," which has a nice smoky nightclub feel, and "U.S. Blues," with a funky New Orleans brass band sound. There are solos and accompanying parts that stand out on certain cuts that make the songs more enjoyable, but I do not think it is enough to make people abandon the originals for too long, and the performances just dont have the main ingredient --- blues.
--- Tony Nowicki
Too rock and roll for the blues or too blues for rock and roll? That has been the question that is always posed when you mention Coco Montoya's name. Suspicion (Alligator) will only add fuel to that debate. If you are a Montoya fan you surely won't give a broken guitar string how anyone classifies it, because it is "OH SO GOOD." Having served his tenure with Albert Collins and John Mayall's BluesBreakers, Coco has repeatedly produced one fine album after the other. Suspicion, his fourth release as a leader, is chock full of the sweet singing guitar riffs and hard driving energies and rhythms that have become his trademark. This time around Mr. Montoya has invited a horn section along to share in the fun on four numbers, which adds a slightly different perspective to his musical spectrum. While his guitar playing has always been the entity that is spotlighted, Montoya's vocals always seem to be forgotten. He possesses one hell of a strong expressive voice that is as equally emotional as his fretwork. "Get Your Business Straight" and "Trading One Fool For Another" are testaments to how vocally adept Coco can be. "Beyond The Blues," a high voltage social commentary, and "Good Days, Bad Days," a mellow lament over lost love, are two completely opposite numbers that show off the immense talents of this highly under-respected guitar warrior. "You Didn't Think About That" is the best tune on this collection, and features some blistering soloing that will raise your temperature a few degrees. "Nothing But Love," the closer to this marvelous CD, is dedicated to the memory of (among others) Albert Collins, and is just plain beautifully written and movingly performed. I could write more on how good this CD is, but I'll let the listener judge for him or herself. This CD should make every critic's top ten list for 2000. Run, don't walk, to get this one.
Moody would be the best description of Troy Turner's Blues On My Back (Telarc ). Troy explores several different moods of the blues on his first release for a major label, without getting boring or dull. His guitar chops are a straight ahead mix of Texas, Chicago and Louisiana blues, and are consistently fresh and melodically interesting. Vocally, Turner is as diverse as they come, giving each number it's own identity and style. Only two pieces out of 13 are originals, "Blues On My Back" and "No Hard Feelings," but show great promise of future songwriting yet to come. Covers abound on this release. "Baby Let's Play House," the often-covered "Hideaway," and "Black Cat Bone" are three of the best tunes on this album, and showcase Turner's guitar prowess. "Mojo Boogie" is a pleasant shuffle with Troy growling the vocals over some classic ragtime piano and a piercing guitar solo. Originally from Baton Rouge, Louisiana, Turner has very close ties to the Neal family. He has backed Raful and toured with Kenny, giving him a most impressive musical résumé. Blues on My Back is a very good album, not great mind you, but very good and worth a listen or two if diversity is what you seek.
--- Steve Hinrichsen
Walkin' Cane Mark is a Phoenix-based singer and bandleader who has developed quite a cult following over the past several years with his high energy, sometimes over-the-edge live performances. This is an artist who recognizes the limitations of his vocal abilities, and attempts to counteract with solid, tight bands and wild and crazy stage antics. Acts like Walkin' Cane Mark frequently have trouble transferring that stage presence to CD. But his third disc for Jaen Records, Big-N-Tasty, is a big step up from his two previous efforts for the label. I'll repeat one fact --- this CD is not for you if you're looking for smooth, silky vocals. Walkin' Cane Mark's vocal style more closely resembles that of Howlin' Wolf with a bad head cold. But if you appropriately set your expectations, then you'll find Big-N-Tasty to be a downright fun album. Part of what makes this album is the superb guitar work from both special guest Guitar Shorty (on four cuts) and WCM's regular axeman Wayne Bruno. Shorty especially sounds good on Nappy Brown's "Deep Sea Diver." Stan Hoffman contributes a tasty piano intro to the midtempo shuffle "Mind Always Changes." Mark's best harmonica work comes on the acoustic version of a song co-written with Snooky Pryor, "Ida May," recorded live in the studio of a Colorado radio station. It's a gutsy move for a singer like Walkin' Cane Mark to tackle a song like "Pain In My Heart," but it works here, aided by the strong horn section giving it that Memphis soul sound. Check out Walkin' Cane Mark's web site for more info.
New England session regular Sax Gordon stepped out from the background two years ago to record a fine solo album for Bullseye Blues & Jazz, Have Horn Will Travel (see original review). That one made my top ten list for '98, and now one of the blues world's finest sax players is back with another fine one, You Knock Me Out (Bullseye Blues & Jazz). Sax Gordon opens with an uptempo rocker, "90 MPH," demonstrating his hot sax work and raspy vocals. "Lonely For You" is a Harlem Nocturne-style slow, late night blues, written by Alvin "Red" Tyler. This album is more than just Gordon's show, as he's assembled a crack band make up mostly of members of various incarnations of Roomful of Blues. Producer Duke Robillard contributes a great steel guitar sound on the instrumental "Speed Rack," while pianist Matt McCabe and bassist Marty Ballou also chip in with tasty solos. Gordon and Doug James launch into a heated sax duel on the swingin' original instrumental "Lorenzo Leaps In." He pays tribute to major influence Louis Jordan with an original novelty number "That Little Town Rocks," one which you could easily imagine Jordan singing. You Knock Me Out is a great disc which just gets better every time I hear it ... sax lovers will certainly need to add this one to their collections.
Josh White Jr. is a second-generation performer who, like his father, has generally appealed more to the folk market than to the blues crowd. House of the Rising Son (Silverwolf) pays tribute to the senior White, as White Jr. covers 10 of his father's classics, plus a version of Billie Holiday's "Strange Fruit" and a 1945 radio recording of "One Meatball." White Jr. has a rich, deep voice and is a decent guitar player. But the recordings are a little too clean and sterile for my tastes. Maybe the CD is targeted to appeal more to a folk audience. The songs are all great, but they're just not dirty and raw enough for my tastes. The most interesting piece here is the 1945 recording for the Armed Forces Radio Show, with White Sr. and a four-year-old White Jr. appearing together with Duke Ellington's orchestra in the background. It gives the listener a chance to hear just how much White Jr. sounds now like his father did back in his prime.
OK class, does everyone know the meaning of the word 'Skiffle?' If not, check out the official Skiffle web site, then come back to this review. The Skiffle Sessions (Pointblank) was recorded live in Belfast, and featured Van Morrison, skiffle pioneer Lonnie Donegan, and Chris Barber. The result of the two November '98 evenings in Ireland is a very fun album. Morrison and Donegan show the vocals, and the contrast between their two vocal styles provides a nice diversity through the 15-song performance. The tunes here are a mix of country blues and old timey classics, most of which we've all heard many times in our lives. My favorite is "The Ballad of Jesse James," with Morrison providing the lead vocals in his usual distinctive style. Other classics include "Midnight Special," "Frankie and Johnny," "Goodnight Irene," and "Muleskinner Blues." Recommended for Van Morrison fans, lovers of acoustic blues, and anyone else with a taste for good music.
Naked Blues (Ranell Records) by California artist K.K. Martin has already been out for a year, but this nice traditional blues disc is still worth reviewing. Martin looks like anything BUT the image of a traditional bluesman ... from his picture I'd assume him to be a heavy metal rocker. But the 13 cuts on Naked Blues are all pleasant country blues numbers, featuring Martin's tasteful guitar pickin' and his Dylan-style vocals. One of the better cuts is the Mississippi John Hurt tune "Angels Laid Him Away." His best guitar work comes on the original "Up Jumps The Devil." Also good is the harmony vocals on the traditional number "I Shall Not Be Moved."
Takoma Slide (Takoma/Fantasy) is a real nice collection of slide guitar numbers from various Takoma recordings over the years, and representing many different styles of music. The disc begins with a raw number, "Rolling and Tumbling Blues," recorded in Hollywood, of all places, by Eddie "One String" Jones, and played on a one string guitar. There are also tunes from Mississippi Delta and rural Louisiana standouts like Robert Pete Williams, Bukka White, Son House (a great live version of the classic "Preachin' Blues"), and Rev. Robert Wilkins. The late Michael Bloomfield contributes a stirring gospel instrumental, "At The Cross," on which he plays both slide and piano. Bluegrass picker Mike Auldridge is featured on an excellent dobro instrumental, "Everybody Slides." I've always thought of John Fahey and Leo Kottke as two of the better guitar players I've ever heard, and they're both included on this CD, the former with a nice acoustic number, accompanied by the barking of his dog, on "Poor Boy," and the latter with a tasty instrumental "Vaseline Machine Gun." The compiler of this album has done a very good job in blending together artists of different styles, with the end result being a CD which I highly recommend.
--- Bill Mitchell
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