Blues Bytes

What's New

February 2014

an associate Order these featured CDs today:

Mighty Mike Schermer

The Soul Drivers

The Human Rights Concerts (DVD)

The Human Rights Concerts (CD)

Tommy Castro

Deb Ryder

Smokin' Joe Kubek - Bnois King


James Armstrong

Mark T. Small

Eddie Cotton

JJ Thames

Steve Dawson

Terry Gillespie

Debbie Bond


Mighty Mike SchermerHere's one that got past all of us last year. Be Somebody (CD Baby), from guitarist extraordinaire Mighty Mike Schermer, was without a doubt one of the best blues releases of 2013. But we didn't get a review published after this fine disc came out last February, nor did any of our reviewers include it on our individual Top Ten lists for 2013. So let's make up for lost time and set the record straight right now!

Schermer has always had a stellar reputation as a guitar player's guitarist, and isn't a half bad vocalist either. I first became familiar with Mike when the Bay Area cat was co-leading, along with harmonica cat Andy Santana, the vastly underrated band The Soul Drivers in the late '90s before launching his solo career with the 2000 CD 1st Set. After his second solo release, aptly named Next Set, Schermer joined forces with Elvin Bishop as that band's lead guitarist.

This latest CD kicks off with the upbeat title cut, "Be Somebody," featuring special guests Marcia Ball and Angela Strehli, the Austin royalty members who provide awesome background vocals and Ms. Ball's always excellent piano work. Following that song is a Memphis-style funk number, "Things Ain't Everything," that also incorporates elements of New Orleans soul.

Elvin Bishop joins his former guitarist on the mid-tempo Southwestern sound of "Corazon," with its Texas-style fuzzy bass line and a killer slide solo from our special guest.

The song that I originally heard on Sirius/XM that compelled me to download this album was the soulful "Do Me Like That," with its gospel-ish intro featuring nice harmony vocals. It's one of the album's many highlights.

Schermer really gets to stretch out on his guitar on the up-tempo blues "Someday." This one's full of catchy hooks that will have you singing along long after you've popped the CD back into its jewel case.

"Over My Head" is a mid-tempo shuffle that pulls the most evocative vocals from Schermer as he admits that he's consistently going to give love still another try despite past failures. Here he sings, "...maybe I'm one of those poor lost souls who don't really know when to stop, but it won't be the last time I'm going to jump in over my head ..." Wow, what a great tune!

Schermer continues the same theme on the Texas ballad "Lonely Hearts," with Emily Gimble, granddaughter of original Texas Playboy Johnny Gimble, joining on vocals. Nice sax work here. The band heads further east for the New Orleans novelty number "My Baby Only Loves Me When She's Drunk," on which Schermer puts a lot more fuzzy vibrato to his guitar playing.

Ms. Gimble is back with harmony vocals on the pleasant mid-tempo love song "Stickin' To You." Her inclusion on this album now has me searching for more of her Texas swing work.

Be Somebody closes with a solid blues shuffle, "Keep Reachin' for the Top," urging the listener to never stop pushing on to a better day. And really, that's what the blues is all about. Just in case we forgot about it, Schermer takes one more opportunity with a blistering solo to remind us that he's really a very fine blues guitarist.

Is it too late to change my 2013 "Best of " list and move Be Somebody right to the top of the list? This is really a very good album, one that deserves to be on every blues fans wish list. While you're at it, you may also want to pick up some of his older work, including the 'hard to find' Tight White Dress from The Soul Drivers. You won't regret it!

--- Bill Mitchell

Human Rights ConcertsAround 1988 a friend called to say that his date canceled and he wanted to know if I wanted to go to the L.A. Forum to see some music --- The Human Rights Concerts. I naturally jumped at the chance.

I didn’t realize just how amazing that show would be: Bono walking blindfolded on a stack of speakers to demonstrate the helplessness of political prisoners around the world. Aaron Neville and Joan Baez dueting on "Amazing Grace." Madonna came out to speak for a minute. Lou Reed performed. Bonnie Raitt shared the stage with Brian Adams, and Peter Gabriel played a long set.

The following year another friend took me to the L.A. Coliseum for a second Amnesty show. She was excited to see Bruce Springsteen. He came on about midnight or 2 am and tore it up. Prior to that, Sting played. Peter Gabriel was there again, as was Yossou N’Dour. Not as many players as on the first show, but an equally spectacular show. Among the best pair of concerts ever.

The 28 shows that Amnesty International produced around the world were to raise money for and consciousness about the important work that the organization does. Now comes a 6 DVD set and double CD overview of those shows. !Released! The Human Rights Concerts 1986-1998 just out on Shout Factory. This is pretty impressive: U2, Peter Paul and Mary, Third World, Miles Davis, Fela Kuti, Carlos Santana, Jackson Browne, Yoko Ono, the Police, Jimmy Page and Robert Plant, Joan Armatrading, Tracy Chapman, and others are shown in spectacular footage performing in New Jersey, Santiago, Buenos Aires, and Paris. They are here to remind us that music is noble --- especially anti-war peace-driven music.

Get the CD first and let it draw you into the stunning visuals of the DVDs. Jackson Browne ("For America"), Joni Mitchell ("Hejira"), Peter Gabriel ("Biko"), Springsteen ("Born In The USA"). This is music of substance, music of inspiration, music of celebration. If that's your criteria for music, this is highly recommended!

--- Mark E. Gallo

Tommy CastroTommy Castro and the Painkillers were here in December to play a benefit for the Lyons Community Foundation, one of the areas hardest hit by the floods in Colorado and played an amazing set of a music for a good cause. I hadn’t crossed paths with Tommy for awhile, so it was good to talk with my old friend and see how life had been treating him. The ups and downs of the last couple of years for Tommy have been well chronicled so I won’t rehash them here, but it was refreshing to see was his enthusiasm and passion for the music he’s back to making now with the Painkillers.

To my way of thinking, a passionate and happy Bluesman is definitely one to listen to and Tommy pulled out all the stops on his new record, The Devil You Know. For his newest release on Alligator Records, Tommy called in a bunch of favors from his friends (Marcia Ball, Tab Benoit, Joe Bonamassa, Samantha Fish, the Holmes Brothers, Mark Karan, Magic Dick, and Tasha Taylor to make a record that definitely caught my ear and assaulted my senses. Let’s give it a listen.

Hill Country distortion and edginess provide the backdrop for the title cut, “The Devil You Know,” and here we are with Tommy, deep in the Mississippi Delta making deals our butts can’t cover. And of course, the woman in our song is trying to warn Tommy to be wary of his choices. “You Dance with the Devil…you only have hell to pay…the Devil you know is the Devil you don’t…I’m going to stick with the Devil I got.”

The intensity of our first cut is ratcheted down a notch with the keyboard intro from James Pace on “Second Mind.” Here we find Tommy in an area of indecision, trying to make a choice. “I’ve been searching…for a sign…and I will go…until I find…my second mind.” With a clear vision Tommy will be ready to move ahead and he’s not going anywhere until he reaches that point! Joe Bonamassa takes the guitar lead on the next cut, “I’m Tired.” Here we find that Tommy’s had enough of everyone else’s opinions of what he should and shouldn’t do. “I’m tired of trying to be…something that I know ain’t me…I’m tired of living up to…what people expect me to be…now wouldn’t it be a real drag…if we were all the same.” It's Tommy’s life…it’s his music…he can go where ever the hell he wants to with it!

Up next is “Center of Attention,” and here we find Tommy with his eye on a woman who’s making sure that everyone knows she’s there. “You’re playing games…you’re dropping names as if somebody cares…you drink too much…you get messed up…and everybody stares…why you got to be…the center of attention?” A hard driving back end from Randy McDonald on bass and Byron Cage on drums underscores this woman’s desperation to find someone to love her. A New Orleans flavored beat gives rise to our cut with Tasha Taylor on it, “The Whale Have Swallowed Me.” “They say the whale…swallowed Jonah…out in the deep, blue sea…sometimes I get the feeling…the same whale…will follow me…o…oh!”

I like the Whale song and it’s a nice prelude to Tommy’s duet with Tab Benoit on “When I Cross the Mississippi.” The mighty Mississippi River has always been one of the primary symbols of the Blues in the Delta and our boys are expounding on what crossing the river means to them. “When I cross the Mississippi…I feel like I’m going home…when I cross the Mississippi…don’t mind being alone…that river runs so strong…that river cleared my brain…when I cross the Mississippi…got muddy water in my veins.” Guitars are blazing and it’s clear that Tab and Tommy are enjoying performing this tune. I’m always amazed by the sight of the river when I cross the bridge from Arkansas into Memphis, and there’s something about it that definitely tells me I’m home when I get into Memphis.

We move a little further south into Louisiana to find Marcia and Tommy telling us the story of a character named, “Mojo Hannah.” This one is familiar with the Voodoo traditions of the bayou and sounds like a good woman to avoid. “Now…I’m talking about a woman named Hannah…down in Louisiana…they tell me she’s a Mojo worker…she’s gonna work that thing for me…she’s gonna end my misery.” Let’s hope it’s that simple for Tommy’s sake.

I hear some B3 in the background and the Holmes Brothers with it as Tommy continues to encounter obstacles in “Two Steps Forward.” “What don’t kill me…might make me stronger…it might just take me a little longer…I take two steps forward…and one step back.” Throw in a little harp from Magic Dick and Tommy’s moving forward but his journey isn’t always in the straight line he was hoping for. A little funk on the back end echoed by B3 notes finds Tommy telling us about a woman he encountered in the club on “She Wanted to Give It to Me.” Here we find Tommy faithful to the woman in his life and he’s telling her that he managed to avoid all of the temptation that this woman presented to him. “I tried to be strong…but her legs were long…she must have been some kind of dancer…she was working on me…it was plain to see…she wasn’t taking no…for an answer…she wanted to give it me…but, I didn’t take it.” Tommy’s will prevailed in the end, but this woman sounds like the ultimate temptation!

A cover of the classic “Keep on Smilin'” follows next and the entire tone of this tune is very mellow and laid back as Tommy and the Painkillers give it their best shot. “You got to roll with the changes…until the sun comes out again…you got to…keep on smilin’." Up next is “Medicine Woman” and the entire pace is frenetic with Samantha Fish doing the honors on the vocals along with Tommy. “I’ve got a medicine woman…you know…she about to cure all me ills…I said…Vooooo…got your remedy….but you…got to come to me…my Medicine woman….she don’t need to cast a spell…she’s soothes with the feeling…got the magic touch….that keeps me well.” Samantha provides the perfect foil for Tommy on this tune and there’s no doubt she’s got the medicine that Tommy needs.

I find our next tune, “That’s All I Got,” is a bit of a respite from the intensity of “Medicine Woman” and here we find Tommy pleading his case for the love of a good woman. “That’s all I got baby…that’s all I got…nothing…but love for you.” The Devil You Know closes with the single Tommy released last year, “Greedy.” Here we find Tommy reveling in the presence of excess, “Money is all I need…I’m going to take it to my grave…I’m Greedy!”

This disc has been quite the ride and I’m appreciative of all of Tommy’s friends who lent their considerable talents to the result. Tommy’s passion in performing his Blues with the edge he’s created with the Painkillers is obvious, and I know he appreciates having longtime friend and bassist Randy McDonald back in the fold. I told him in Boulder that we’d been missing his presence at the Blues Music Awards and I’m confident this disc will get him back on the guest list.

Tommy is touring extensively behind this disc with the Painkillers and is coming to a venue near you soon. Grab a copy of The Devil You Know from Tommy when you see him and appreciate all of the hard work that went into this recording. Tommy’s back…and he isn’t taking any prisoners!

--- Kyle Deibler

Deb RyderDeb Ryder’s name crossed my path rather serendipitously when I sat down to listen to a webcast of Sheldon Abbott’s “Cure for the Blues” out of L.A. My friends Kennan and Julie were sitting in as guest hosts, one of their last acts of farewell to L.A. before joining me here in Fort Collins and are almost real Coloradoans at this point. Sheldon played a cut off of Deb’s new disc, Might Just Get Lucky, I immediately noticed her powerhouse voice and it stuck with me. Fast forward to her disc arriving in the mail and it turns out that Deb is also a pretty good songwriter, with all of the cuts on her disc being original tunes. So let’s give it a spin.

A scintillating guitar riff from Kirk Fletcher kicks the party off as Deb tackles “Get a Grip,” a tune she wrote about the man in her life and the choices he needs to make. This girl’s working her fingers to the bone while her man sits at home and fails to appreciate the efforts she’s making, “Now….now…baby…I think I’m better off alone…so…get a grip…get real…or get gone.” The choice is pretty clear and hopefully he’s smart enough to make the right one. There’s a sexy growl in Deb’s voice and she’s already starting to win a fan over here.

Next up is “Blue Collar Blues” and after a long week of working, it’s time to Par-tay. Albert Lee is handling the picking here as Deb and her friends are ready to let loose. “Turn it up…turn it up…yea…that’s how we roll…week is done…we’ve paid our dues…check out those blue collar blues.” A little melancholy harp sets the back story for “Really Gone,” a tune where Deb discovers her man has really left her this time. “I just can’t stand it…you left me here all alone…I got a bad….bad, feeling baby….this time you’re really gone.” Yes Deb, he’s out the door and down the road but I have this feeling you’ll be just fine. A strong woman is sexy and you’re more than holding your own girl.

The title cut, “Might Just Get Lucky,” finds subtle keyboard work from Greg Hilfman behind Deb as the object of her attention could be a lucky man tonight. “So…if you want to take a chance…on something less than romance…come on by…I’ll be here tomorrow…flatter and woo me…baby, hoo chee coo me….baby…you just might get lucky…and baby…you just might get lucky tonight.” Our next cut, “Come on Home to Me,” finds Deb in a supportive mood and appreciating the challenges her man is facing: “things are tough all over…going to get tougher…before we’re through….so when you need a little comfort…baby, you know what to do…come on home to me…I got what you need.” For some reason I have no doubt that Deb does indeed have what her man needs.

A funky, Zydeco backbeat provides the ambience for Deb’s next tune, “Ce Soir Ce Soir,” which roughly translates into "Tonight,Tonight." “Everybody here…and raring to go…c’mon baby…don’t be slow…I’m cooking up a recipe…for romance…all I need is some, funky old sex." Nuff said, I’m thinking.

The tempo slows way down on our next tune, “Bad, Bad Dream,” as Deb bares her heart to the man she loves. “Now you know…just, what you lost…a love like mine, you can’t find at any cost….I’m awake now…my eyes are open…it was all…a bad, bad dream.” He let a good woman go and she’s not the forgiving kind, time to move on.

Deb’s personal observations of a man at a party are up next in “The Angels Cried.” The man in question is facing a losing battle with his demons of the bottle and no one seems to be able to get him to realize that, “the angels cried…I can hear the crying…I swear…if I had another chance to turn it all around…I’d keep another heart from breaking down…oh, oh, oh…the angels cried!” His woman reached out to Deb for help and at the time she couldn’t see her way clear to be of assistance to her friend. The ending is inevitable and could have been avoided.

We move on to Deb facing a man in her life that is less than true in “Love Stealin Liar.” “What in the hell does he expect from you…he’s stepping out on me…and he’s stepping out on you….love stealin liar!” This one’s been caught and all the women involved will soon see his way to the curb for the way they’ve been treated.

Deb closes with a little Hill Country dobro in the form of James McVay in the background on “These Hands.” “Take these hands…and use them, Lord.” I love the religious sentiments of “These Hands” and a little Gospel seems to be the appropriate ending to a very good album by Deb Ryder and friends.

Deb’s been toiling her wares in Southern California for quite awhile now and grew up seeing an amazing amount of great music at her stepdad’s club in the canyon, The Topanga Corral. She’s learned her lessons well, writes great tunes and sings with the best of them. Her disc, Might Just Get Lucky, was submitted by the Southern California Blues Society in the Blues Foundation’s 2014 Best Self-Produced CD competition and was indeed, a worthy entry. It’s obvious Deb and the band had a good time on this record, and thanks to Sheldon Abbott and his guest DJs for bringing her to my attention.

--- Kyle Deibler

Smokin' Joe KubekSitting here listening to Smokin’ Joe Kubek & Bnois King’s new disc, Road Dog’s Life, feels like a good friend has come to visit. It’s warm, friendly, tells good stories and is at least going to stay around for a little while. It’s the 15th recording for these Texas Bluesmen and their second on the Delta Groove label. Let’s sit around the kitchen table and take the time to hit “play.”

We start out with Joe’s guitar in the forefront and Bnois is telling us about a high roller named “Big Money Sonny.” Sonny wasn’t the trusting sort, kept all of his money in the trunk of his car, but when a big game came around Sonny would definitely be there. “Sonny loved the dice…sometime he played the cards…whatever game he chose…you know Sonny played it hard…if you played against Sonny…you know your money had better not be slim.” Sounds like Sonny won more than he lost and had the trunk full to show for it.

“Come on In” finds Bnois happy to see a wandering woman show back up at his doorstep. “Come on in, baby…relax, stay awhile…won’t be upset when you go…cause I know it’s just your style.” While he’s happy with the time she spends with him, Bnois is also mindful of the fact that the next time she knocks, he might have a woman of his own in the house and won’t be able to let her back in. The band slows down into a slow shuffle and both Randy Chortkoff and Kim Wilson are on hand to blow a little harp and sing a little in “Nobody But You.” “My friend’s say…it’s all in my mind…they say you’re just another woman…been a long time…I just can’t get over you…now the things my friends said…seems like it just ain’t true." This is the woman Bnois wants and as he says, “ain’t nobody but you.”

Life on the road isn’t for everyone and Bnois tells us all about it in “Road Dog’s Life.” Smokin’ Joe is doing exactly that on the guitar and Bnois expounds on the road. “We’re all packed up…and on our way…travel all day…up all night…that’s the story of a road dog’s life…and we wouldn’t have it any other way.” Our next cut, “K9 Blues,” talks about a dog of a different breed. “My fiancé called me up…said I’ve been thinking about it…you’ve got those roaming eyes…I think I want out of it…I’ve seen you sniffing around…like a regular, street mutt…is she calling me a dog…I think she just called me a K9, I mean the very worst kind.” Sounds like she’s got Bnois’s number and is smart to let him roam the streets like he’s definitely prone to do.

Tempo slows down just a tad and Bnois is worried about what’s on his woman’s mind in “That Look On Your Face.” “Talk to me baby…set my mind at ease…I got to know what you’re thinking…cause your mind…I cannot read!” It’s never clear what’s on his baby’s mind, but hopefully Bnois will weather the storm. The subject of our next tune, “Face to Face,” is all about technology and the impact it has on relationships. “Well, I can’t be texted…forget about the tweet….we will have to meet…eyeball to eyeball…come into my space…I like to meet…baby, face to face.” I can relate to Bnois on that one. Communication and conversation are rapidly becoming lost arts in this techno society we’re living in today, so I applaud him for his insistence on the human interaction.

Up next is the band’s take on a Beatles tune, “Don’t Bother Me.” “So go away…leave me alone…don’t bother me…I can’t believe… that you would leave me…all alone.” We move on to find that Bnois is evidently a single man and cooking just isn’t in his wheelhouse as we hear in “I Ain’t Greasin.” “Got to find me a woman…that cooks real good…cause I ain’t greasin…like I know I should.” Kim Wilson’s harp emphasizes Bnois’s desperation in the kitchen and hopefully he’ll find an acceptable solution soon.

Willie J. Campbell on the bass and Jimi Bott on the drums are laying down an extra thick back end on our next tune, “Talkin’ Bout Bad Luck.” What seems to be bad luck to others has the appearance of well to do to Bnois. “A diamond on every finger…on her feet…Vera Wang…I’m sitting there thinking…the girl don’t have to worry about a thing…hell, I’m living on the edge…thinking I’m doing ok…her old man’s sitting there crying…cause his stocks dropped another day…uh huh…they’re doing really bad…on the rich part of town."

We move on as the band covers the Rolling Stones tune, “Play with Fire.” “Well, don’t play with me…cause you’re playing with fire.” Bnois has given the girl fair warning, what she chooses to do after that is up to her as Randy Chortkoff lays some more harp on us in the background.

The band closes out their disc with another original tune, “That Don’t Work No More.” They’re off the road for a bit and Bnois is facing the lack of power he holds in his current relationship. “Oh…but she’s up getting dressed…I don’t want her to go…but telling her she can’t…oh, that don’t work no more.” His woman is going to do what she wants to do and there’s not much Bnois has to say about it at this point. It is what it is.

I like Road Dog’s Life. It’s a story we all can relate to and 15 records' worth of recordings have found Smokin’ Joe and Bnois in a very comfortable groove. I do believe they’ll be here in Colorado shortly and that’s definitely a show I’ll need to see. You can grab a copy of this disc from them on the road or hit up the band’s website. I know the disc will sound just as comfortable in your CD player as it did in mine.

--- Kyle Deibler

NiecieNiecie has traveled a long and winding road with her Blues. Born and raised in Detroit, Niecie was a fixture on Motown’s Blues scene for a number of years before hitting the road to Chicago, L.A., Boston and all points in between. She’s settled nicely into Nashville now and uses the Music City as her home base for all of her adventures to follow. She’s back in the mix with a new disc, Wanted Woman. Let’s see what she’s got.

She starts out with the “Traffic Light” and bemoans her fate at being unable to move in any direction. “Stuck here at this traffic light…I’m holding onto to this wheel to tight…spend too much time…waiting in line…stuck here at this traffic light.” Hopefully the traffic will ease up soon and Niecie will be on her way. Johnny Neel is displaying his wizardry on the B3 as Niecie tells us of her survival after the breakup of a relationship in “You Wouldn’t Know It Now.” “I don’t need you…hanging around…since you’ve been gone…this isn’t the same old house…you wouldn’t know it now.” The time to be crushed has passed and Niecie is moving confidently in a new direction with no regret in sight.

The title track, “Wanted Woman,” is up next and there’s a very solid back end to this tune from Daryl Burgess on drums and Dennis Gulley on bass as Niecie lets us know that everyone is after her. “I got a bounty on my head…oh, Lord…I’m scared to death…I’m a wanted woman.” Don’t know the crime, but if she’s caught Niecie definitely sounds like she will have to do the time.

“Crying for My Baby” finds Niecie lamenting her man leaving her behind. She’s eager to have him come back home and be next to her. “Crying for my baby…won’t you come back home…can’t live my life without you.” Johnny’s keyboard work on the B3 underscores Niecie’s desire to have her man return, and perhaps he will.

Blistering guitar work by Chris Anderson provides the intro for our next adventure, “Strange Way,” and here we find Niecie at a crossroads. “I know there’s something missing…I can feel it down in my bones…cause when I’m lying beside you…I feel so all alone…if this is love…you’ve got a strange way of showing it.” Her man isn’t paying the right attention to her and I’ve got a feeling that Niecie is about to make an executive decision to move on. We move on to “Blues Ain’t Nothin” and here we learn Niecie’s definition of the Blues. “The Blues ain’t nothin…you know the blues ain’t nothing…but a woman feeling bad.” Not exactly Son House’s definition, but close enough for Niecie’s purposes.

The band manages to slow the tempo down just a tad and Niecie segues into more of a ballad in “Just Can’t Walk Away.” “But they don’t scare me…half as much as that woman…she’s trying to take my man away…it’s a bad, bad feeling…I can’t shake…but I just can’t walk away.” Niecie’s dealing with a lot of pain in her life that the doctors just can’t help her with, unless they have the cure for this cheating woman who has her eye on Niecie’s man. Niecie’s running out of options and like it or not, this time she just might have to walk away.

The saucy “Typical Chick” is up next and I’m finding that Niecie is anything but “typical”. “I ain’t your typical chick…don’t waste my time…don’t give me no lip…I ain’t your typical chick.” I believe her on this one and you’ve got to love a woman with attitude. Another strong guitar intro presents us with Little Milton’s tune, “Mother Nature,” and Niecie’s in the process of tracking her man down. “I give you fair warning…every word I say is true…if you’ve got my man…turn him loose…if you know what’s good for you…don’t mess with Mother Nature…you’ll be sorry if you do.” I have the distinct feeling that it’s probably best to not mess with Niecie on this one.

The disc closes with a fairly funky tune in the form of “God’s Got This.” Niecie’s faith gets her through and she knows she’ll be fine. “God’s got this…and God’s got that…I guarantee you brother…he’s always got your back.” Amen to that.

I’ve got to admit it took awhile for me to warm to Niecie’s new disc, Wanted Woman, but I like it. Johnny Neel did an outstanding job of producing Niecie’s disc and surrounded her with a formidable array of some of Nashville’s finest players. You can find out more about this transplanted Tennessean on her website. I missed her performance at this year’s WIB showcase that was part of the IBC, but I will catch her next time.

--- Kyle Deibler

James ArmstrongJames Armstrong’s 2012 release, Blues on the Border, was his first release since 2000 and it was a welcome return. Armstrong’s soulful vocals and savvy songwriting had been much missed, and it was great to hear him playing guitar so well after the terrible attack in 1996 that left him without the use of his left hand and arm until he underwent a long and rigorous rehabiltation.

Armstrong cites inspiration from four “guitar angels,” his jazz guitar-playing father, James Armstrong, Sr., guitarist/bandmate Michael Ross, Coco Montoya, who he grew up playing with, and Joe Louis Walker. From this inspiration came the autobiographical title track to his latest release, Guitar Angels (Catfood Records).

The title track is presented in album format and also radio format, and it’s a standout both ways, with Armstrong acknowledging his appreciation for their talents and inspiration to the four mentioned above and others like Hendrix, SRV, and the Kings who have passed away, but still move him. The somber “Healing Time” was co-written by Armstrong and Ross, in tribute to Ross’s brother, also a guitarist of note who recently passed away.

Other highlights include the humorous opening track, “Grandma’s Got A New Friend,” about geriatric love in the 21st century, “Moving To Nashville,” which has an appropriate country feel, the funky “Saturday Night Women,” and a couple of strong R&B-flavored tracks in “Healing Time” and the horn-driven “Runaway Train,” which really packs a punch.

Armstrong also does two strong covers: Johnny Copeland’s “Blues Ain’t Nothin’” is well-done and pretty close to the Copeland original. However, the other cover is truly a reworking of major proportions. “Take It To The Limit,” the mid 70s hit by the Eagles, gets a major overhaul, transformed virtually into a new song by Armstrong, who plays it as a shuffle, with memorable results.

Armstrong sounds great vocally and continues to improve on guitar with some effective lead work and some excellent slide guitar. Ross does a great job on guitar and as producer (with Jim Gaines as co-producer) and they’re assisted by a stellar set of backing musicians.

It’s so good to see James Armstrong now releasing new recordings on a regular basis again, and even better that they’re just as good, or better, than what came before.

--- Graham Clarke

Mark T. SmallFor his latest release, the appropriately-titled Smokin’ Blues (Lead Foot Music), guitarist Mark T. Small offers a sampling of what might be heard from one of his typical solo performances, his objective being to give listeners the feeling that he is playing a set exclusively for them. Small has been a musician for over 40 years, and his music takes in the blues, old time music, bluegrass, and ragtime. In addition to his guitar skills, he’s also a powerful vocalist.

Blues fans will find that they’re familiar with many of these songs (“Step It Up & Go,” Tampa Red’s “Sell My Monkey,” “Goin’ Down Slow,” John Lee Hooker’s “My Daddy Was A Jockey”), but that’s not a problem because Small’s interpretations are so fresh and alive with vitality and intensity that you find yourself hearing the songs in a whole new way. He doesn’t emulate the originals as much as he builds on what was already there.

Small also does an excellent job on Reverend Gary Davis’ “Buck Rag,” and even breathes life into the old soul warhorse, “Walkin’ The Dog,” and the gospel classic, “Keep Your Lamp Trimmed and Burning.” Sam McGee’s “Railroad Blues” finds Small revisiting his bluegrass days, and his fretwork on Charlie Patton’s “Stone Pony Blues” is aggressive and intense, similar to the tune’s originator. The closer, “America Medley” is a collection of several songs (“America the Beautiful,” “Take Me Out To The Ballgame,” “Yankee Doodle Dandy”) played in a style similar to Chet Atkins and Merle Travis, two country music guitarists with deep blues roots.

Smokin’ Blues is a fine collection of guitar music that will appeal to blues lovers and anyone who digs well-played acoustic guitar in any genre. If you’re not familiar with Mark T. Small, this is a great place to get started.

--- Graham Clarke

Eddie CottonIt’s been just over seven years since Eddie Cotton’s last release, 2006’s triumphant return to the Alamo Theatre (a sequel to his excellent 2000 debut), and over a decade since his last studio recording, Extra. Cotton’s latest release, Here I Come, is one of the inaugural releases on his friend Grady Champion’s new label, DeChamp Records, and it finds the Jackson, Mississippi-based singer/guitarist in excellent form, as he was when we last heard from him.

Cotton was raised playing and singing gospel music in his father’s church and playing the blues at home. Like many musicians his age, he grew up listening to those two styles of music, plus soul music and funk. He blends all of these styles together to produce an unique and irresistible blues style, mixing funky rhythms with soulful vocals in a Hi Records vein and some positively fierce guitar work.

The title track opens the disc and really captures the essence of Cotton’s music with the stinging, piercing lead guitar, funky backdrop, and the smooth vocals……just a great all-around track. “A Woman’s Love” is a supple slow blues that continues the momentum, and “Pay To Play” is a real standout with Cotton really tearing it up on guitar in a B.B. King vein…my favorite track on the disc. “Friend to the End” leans toward the R&B side of things and finds Cotton testifying about true friendship, while “Get Your Own” gets down on the funk in a classic James Brown mode. If this one doesn’t at least get your head bobbing, seek medical attention.

“My Boo” settles into a nice, mellow groove and brings to mind the greasy 70s-era Memphis sounds of the aforementioned Hi Records. The boogie shuffle “Leave Love Alone” teams Cotton with Champion, who blows some nice downhome harmonica in support. On the countrified “Back in a Bit,” Cotton gets an assist from harmonica player Carlos Russell. “No Love Back” is a soul-drenched number that really brings out Cotton’s gospel roots, and the closer, “Berry So Black,” is a Chicago-styled shuffle with more impressive harp from Champion.

The only problem I have with Here I Come is that there is not enough of it. It goes by really fast, clocking in at less than 40 minutes. However, that’s not necessarily a bad thing because it just leaves you wanting more, which is the sign of a great recording. Once you listen, you will definitely want to hear more from Eddie Cotton, as quickly as possible.

--- Graham Clarke

JJ ThamesSinger J.J. Thames may only be 30 years old, but she has been performing since she was 9 and has performed all over the world as a backing vocalist for blues/R&B stars like Marvin Sease, Bobby “Blue” Bland, Peggy Scott Adams, Willie Clayton, and Denise LaSalle. She’s also backed reggae-rockers Outlaw Nation, Fishbone, Bad Brains, 311, and Slightly Stoopid. Possessing a stunning voice comfortable singing deep Southern soul or traditional blues, Thames is now stepping out front with her wonderful debut recording, Tell You What I Know, on DeChamp Records.

The disc contains 11 tracks, ten originals written by Thames, producers Grady Champion and Sam Brady, Eddie Cotton, Frederick Knight, Jon and Sally Tiven, and Jim McCormick. The opener, “Souled Out,” should raise goose bumps right from the beginning, with its gospel feel. “Hey You” has more of a country blues vibe with Champion’s harmonica backing Thames’ vocals. The sultry and playful “I Got What You Need” adds horns in a Stax Records vein. “My Kinda Man” is a smooth slow blues that finds Thames extolling the virtues of her lover.

“No Turning Back” is a bluesy R&B track with some smoking guitar from Cotton, while the soul ballad “Can You Let Somebody Else Be Strong” features an excellent vocal turn from Thames. She also offers up a sassy and defiant vocal on the Eddie Cotton tune, “I’ma Make It.” I’ve heard many versions of the Ray Charles classic, “I Believe,” and I have to put Thames’ version near the top of the list…..just a marvelous performance. The Knight/Tiven-penned “Just Enough” is a Memphis-styled tune of regret, complemented by a smoldering guitar solo from Danny Scallions.

The disc closes with “Rhinestones,” a lovely song loaded with vivid imagery, and the autobiographical title track where Thames recounts her struggle to reach the top and pledges that it won’t be long before she makes it there. One would have to agree with her sentiments based on this powerful debut release.

--- Graham Clarke

Steve DawsonRattlesnake Cage (Black Hen Music) is the new release from Steve Dawson. Dawson is responsible for some mighty fine blues and roots music releases from Black Hen over the past few years, including releases from Jim Byrnes, The Sojourners, and that wonderful Mississippi Sheiks tribute CD/DVD from a couple of years ago, serving as a producer/arranger/and guitarist. Recently, he relocated from Canada to Nashville, and has released this outstanding disc, which consists of 11 solo instrumental tracks….just Dawson and his guitar.

The disc was recorded using a vintage tube microphone that was rescued from an old Detroit church. The sound is amazingly clear and vivid, almost as if you’re in the room with Dawson as he plays. It’s just a joy to listen to and fans of acoustic guitar will be blown away by this recording. The challenge for most instrumental albums is that the music has to be solidly structured and distinctive, or it will just fade into the background. That is not an issue at all for Rattlesnake Cage, as Dawson moves from 6 and 12-string guitar to National tricone to Weissenborn Hawaiian guitar, giving the music diversity and depth.

The opener, “Blind Thomas At The Crime Scene,” brings to mind the ’60s work of John Fahey and Leo Kottke and sets the table for what’s to follow. “Flophouse Oratory” has a faster pace and a country blues feel. “The Medicine Show Comes To Avalon” is a lovely tribute to Mississippi John Hurt’s gentle blues.

The brisk title track finds Dawson switching to resonator, and “Lighthouse Avenue” is a more reflective number. The sound is really crystal clear on this track. “Butterfly Stunt” offers more exquisite slide guitar. “J.R. Lockley’s Dilemna” is in a country vein, and fans of the Reverend Gary Davis will love the album closer, “The Altar At Center Raven.”

Rattlesnake Cage is a masterful set of acoustic guitar, with new treasures being revealed during each listen. Steve Dawson makes it sound pretty effortless, but guitar fans will truly appreciate what an impressive work this is.

--- Graham Clarke

Terry GillespieTerry Gillespie has been one of Canada’s finest musicians since relocating there from Michigan in 1968. He formed Heaven’s Radio, one of Ottawa’s finest bands of the ’70s. Though his music is blues-based, he also incorporates hints of jazz, reggae, R&B, and African rhythms and plays guitar, harmonica, and trumpet. His seasoned vocals bring to mind Mark Knopfler and J.J. Cale at times. Bluesoul is his latest release, recorded live at the 2012 Maxville Musicfest in St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church.

Bluesoul offers a wide variation of blues styles, from the opening shuffle, “The Devil Likes To Win,” which is kicked off by a sizzling Elmore James slide riff, to the aptly-titled “What Would Bo Diddley Do,” with its irresistible Diddley beat, to the New Orleans’ R&B of “My Tipitina,” There’s also a couple of boogie tracks (“It Wasn’t Me” and “16 Days”), a strong, cleverly-written rocker (“Her Mind Left First”), and a soulful ballad (“Magnolia Tree”).

Gillespie also turns in four well-chosen, and well-done, covers. The soul classic “You’re Gonna Make Me Cry” gets a really inspired vocal performance. The traditional track, “My Mama,” is a moody blues with an urban feel, and “Early in the Morning” is a down and dirty Mississippi Delta blues track with some nice harp from Gillespie. The Professor Longhair tune, “She Walks Right In,” is one of several tracks showcasing the keyboard skills of Peter Measroch.

Giving Gillespie a hand on these 13 tracks are Measroch (acoustic and electric piano, organ), Lyndell Montgomery (bass, violin), and Wayne Stoute (drums, percussion). The background vocals are ably handled by The Toasted Westerns (Jody Benjamin, Ann Downey, and Sally Robinson).

Well-produced and recorded in front of an enthusiastic and supportive crowd, Bluesoul is an interesting and versatile set of blues and roots music from a seasoned vet of the Canada music scene who should be a lot better known than he is beyond the Canadian border. Hopefully, this release will help to rectify that issue.

--- Graham Clarke

Debbie BondIn the spring of 2013, Debbie Bond and the TruDats appeared on Radio Free Nashville WRFN’s Mando Blues Show, as part of a trip to appear at the annual Nashville Blues and Jazz Awards. Their intention during the performance was to give their audience a taste of what one of their regular shows was like, mixing in a few new songs that would be appearing on their next album. The performance went so well and was so well-received that Bond decided to release the show as a live album, That Thing Called Love (Blues Root Productions).

The TruDats settle into a groove right off the bat with the funky “You’re The Kind of Trouble,” then ease into a New Orleans-styled “Steady Rolling Man,” with some nice piano from Rick Asherson and sax from guest Tom Pallardy. “Feed My Soul” will be familiar to Holmes Brothers fans, and Bond ably handles with this soulful ballad. “I Like It Like That” finds Asherson pulling double duty on piano and harmonica. Bond shines on the ballad, “Still Missing You,” both vocally and on guitar.

“Tarragona Blues” is a tribute to the band’s fans in Spain, and the Latin-flavored track is offered in two versions, one extended, and Bond does a wonderful job on the ballad, “Falling,” and the bluesy title track, which also includes some fine instrumental work from her, Asherson, and Pallardy.

That Thing Called Love turns out to be a nice reward for all of Debbie Bond’s fans as it paints a vivid picture of a typical performance, mixing blues with soul, funk, jazz, and a bit of the swamp thrown in for good measure. For newcomers, it’s a great starting point for hearing this talented artist, too.

--- Graham Clarke


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