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February 2020

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Order these featured CDs today:

Whitney Shay

Phantom Blues Band

Mary Jo Curry

Ryan Perry

Brooks Williams

Terry Hanck

Ben Levin

Gracie Curran

Alex Lopez

Dudley Taft


Whitney ShayI first became aware of San Diego singer Whitney Shay just over a year ago, with her third album, Stand Up! (Ruf), being a big step forward. I dug her previous two albums, but on this latest her songwriting is more creative and she takes her power vocals to a new level. What helps even more is that Shay headed to Austin, Texas to record Stand Up!, with Mark 'Kaz' Kazanoff producing and arranging the dozen cuts. The backing band is full of recognizable names, such as Laura Chavez (guitar), Red Young (keyboards), Guy Forsyth (vocals, resonator guitar), Derek O'Brien (guitar on one track) and Marcia Ball (piano on one track).

Shay plays the part of the scorned woman quite well, and that sass comes across on many of the cuts on Stand Up!. We hear that attitude right away on the title cut, a bold and brassy blues, and then continuing with the soulful "Someone You Never Got to Know," on which she lets that man know that he missed out on something good. Young contributes a very hot organ solo partway through the cut.

O'Brien is the star of the mid-tempo "Equal Ground," opening the cut with tasty slide guitar that continues throughout the cut. Speaking of very good guitar work, Laura Chavez contributes some nice licks to another song that's full of Shay's sass, "P.S. It's Not About You."

The high point of the album comes on its fifth cut, "I Thought We Were Through," a slow soulful anthem on which Shay's voice soars through the octaves before getting soft and gentle to give the right effect when she makes sure everyone understands that this relationship is indeed over. Young throws in strong organ playing throughout.

We finally get to hear the other side of Shay (yeah, she's capable of expressing her love, too) on "Far Apart (Still Close)," a duet with Forsyth on which the two singers interact well. But then she's back at it on the very up-tempo "You Won't Put Out This Flame," telling us in no uncertain terms how much of a fireball she is, singing, "...You won't put out this flame ..."

Marcia Ball joins in on piano on the up-tempo jazzy blues, "Boy Sit Down," withle Al Gomez playing very tasteful muted trumpet and Forsyth coming in later for a solo on the resonator guitar.

While I'm impressed with the songwriting of Shay and her co-writer, Adam J. Eros, I also like the selection of covers on Stand Up!, starting with The Five Royales' "Tell The Truth," complete with Shay's more growling vocals and a strong sax solo from Kaz. The version of the 1993 Etta James hit, "I Never Meant To Love Him" really takes this album to another level with Shay pouring her whole soul into this slow gospel-ish number.

Closing this very fine album are two more strong numbers, the bluesy "Getting In My Way," with guitar from Chavez, and the funky and soulful "Change With The Times," featuring lots of big brass from the horn section.

I said it before and I'll say it again --- Stand Up! is a step forward in the career of Whitney Shay. I look forward to hearing what's next for this exciting artist.

--- Bill Mitchell

Phantom Blues BandBest known for their work with Taj Mahal, Phantom Blues Band is a solid ensemble in their own right as heard on their latest disc, Still Cookin' (VizzTone). This is a very diverse band consisting of veteran blues cats, and on this disc they put together a mix of a dozen songs, both band originals and well-chosen covers.

The Phantom gang shows their soulful side right from the start with a cover of Wilson Pickett's "Don't Fight It," with Mike Finnigan, Larry Fulcher and Johnny Lee Schell sharing vocals while Finnigan pounds away on the piano and Joe Sublett blows some powerful sax. Fulcher continues showing how much soul he's got in his vocal chords on the Jeff Paris composition, "Stop Runnin'." Paris even joins in on the Wurlitzer piano here.

Schell stars on a band original, "Wingin' My Way," sounding like it could have come out of the Little Feat songbook, especially when Schell plays his slide guitar. He's actually a little bit of Lowell George and a little bit of Paul Barrere on this cut. Finnigan later gets to be the star, both on vocals and on piano, on the jazzy, late-nite slow blues "Blues How They Linger."

The band doesn't hesitate to take their music down to the islands, with "Shine On" having a feelgood reggae beat and "Tequila Con Yerba" sounding like it came out of 1950s Havana. Great sax work from Sublett on the latter along with a powerhouse B3 solo from Finnigan.

Schell takes us to church on the closer, "I Was Blind," with his low-key vocals complemented by Finnigan's gospel piano accompaniment and later on B3. Schell also contributes some very nice slide guitar playing.

There's more here and it's all good. If you're familiar with the PBB from their work with Taj Majal, Bonnie Raitt, B.B. King and others but haven't yet checked out the recordings in their own name, Still Cookin' is a really good place to start. These cats can do it!

--- Bill Mitchell

Mary Jo Curry BandI receive quite a few CDs featuring artists that are unknown to me, and at times a disc will turn out to be a pleasant surprise. Such is the case with Front Porch (Blind Raccoon), a new one from Illinois-based The Mary Jo Curry Band. It didn't take long for me to realize that Front Porch is good. Real good, actually. Curry possesses a powerful voice that has just a touch of rasp to it, and her very tight band puts out plenty of high energy blues. They're also versatile enough to slow it down for a change of pace and also switch off to other forms of the blues.

That trademark rapid-fire tempo is heard on the opening cut, "Nothin' Is Easy," a rockin' blues with smoking B3 from Brett Donovan. Guitarist Michael Rapier stands out on the blues boogie number, "Turn It Loose," with Donovan moving over to the piano for this one. The entire band has the opportunity to solo on the up-tempo instrumental "Shake & Bake," with guest Tom Holland laying down some nice jazzy licks on guitar while Ezra Casey on keyboards and Brian Moore on sax make their mark.

Of course, it wouldn't be the blues if the singer doesn't tell us about her problems with men, and Curry is quite adept at sharing her pain with the listener. Casey's piano intro brings us into the mid-tempo R&B tune "The Man," what just may be the best cut here. Curry tells us how much she loves her man even though he doesn't treat her well, saying, "...It don't matter he can't be trusted, I'm still gonna be in love...," later adding that she just can't walk away. Another outstanding cut about a troubled relationship is the slow, subdued jazzy number, "House Is Lonely," with sultry vocals from Curry as she and her man are waiting for a better day and praying that they'll smile again someday. Donovan's nice piano and Rapier's tasteful guitar nicely complement Curry's vocals.

Curry's mood turns significantly darker on the heavy 12-bar blues, "Front Porch," as she's waiting for that cheating man to come home. She's packing heat, too. Albert Castiglia guests on guitar, adding some funky wah-wah effects. Front Porch closes with an upbeat number, "Joyful," that changes tempo throughout the song with a rollicking gospel-ish groove when the pace picks up.

Now that this band is on my radar, I'll be watching for more music from The Mary Jo Curry Band. Front Porch is a promising release, and this band has the potential to keep getting better.

--- Bill Mitchell

Ryan PerryRyan Perry is best known as the guitarist and leader of his Mississippi-based family band, Homemade Jamz Blues Band, who burst on the scene in 2008 with the first of their four albums together after finishing second in the International Blues Challenge. They were all still young kids then, full of plenty of raw energy. Perry is now ready to do his own thing, heading to Germany with his studio band to record High Risk, Low Reward (Ruf). It's different than his Homemade Jamz stuff, more polished and with a more contemporary edge over the 11 cuts (eight originals and three covers).

There's some good stuff here, notably the opener, "Ain't Afraid To Eat Alone," an up-tempo blues with stinging guitar leads, and the rawer "High Risk, Low Reward," which is more reminiscent of the material that he did with his family band. The same can be said about the closing number, "Hard Times," with fuzzier guitar by Perry.

Among the covers, "Oh No" is packed full of emotive slow blues guitar licks, while Howlin' Wolf's "Evil Is Going On" carries the same rawness as the original but the guitar work and flow of the song are drastically different. Perry pays tribute to B.B. King on "Why I Sing the Blues," but again he takes this song and makes it all his own by varying the tempo and the sound of his guitar.

I first wanted this disc to sound like another Homesick Jamz album, but it took awhile for me to realize what Perry is trying to do in crafting a new sound while still hanging onto his roots. If, like me, you come in with a pre-conceived notion, give it time. I'm still not there yet, but the more I listen to High Risk, Low Reward I'm starting to understand it more.

--- Bill Mitchell

Brooks WilliamsStatesboro born Americana, folk and country blues singer, songwriter and guitarist Brooks Williams celebrates 30 years as a musician with this 29th album, Work My Claim (Red Guitar Blue Music). One of the hardest working troubadours in the business, Brooks is based in the UK but tours on both sides of the pond, sharing his prodigious talent across two continents. Brooks has selected and re-recorded12 tracks from his extensive back catalogue and given them fresh interpretations with the help of a group of accomplished music making friends.

A bracing scene is set with “Inland Sailor,” the title of the 1994 album which kick-started his career, one prophetic reviewer at the time predicting, “the buzz on Brooks Williams is about to become a roar.” The expressive, poetic lyrics of his original songs would in time become a trademark. Brooks paints a picture in words of the turning tides, the dramatic movement of the wind, the turbulent waves beneath his feet, the haunting cry of the gulls and the smell of the sea. The vibe is enhanced by the accompaniment of fiddle, mandolin and harmonium all reaching a crescendo alongside Brooks’ driving guitar rhythm and flowing vocals.

It was Dave Alvin who penned the timeless classic, “King Of California,” but by the time Brooks recorded it in 2013 he was able to make it his own. This latest version takes the song to a new level with the ethereal backing of Jim Henry’s mandolin and the fiddles of Aaron Catlow and John McCusker, the latter also contributing harmonium and whistle. Williams has gained a considerable reputation as a consummate storyteller, none more so than on “Frank Delandry,” the New Orleans guitarist who died in mysterious circumstances. The contrasting light and shade of Brooks’ voice and guitar maximizes the suspense of this engaging tale.

“Seven Sisters,” from the highly acclaimed 1997 album of the same name, is rich in the imagery of this small chain of mountains in the Pioneer Valley of Massachusetts and another master class in songwriting. Brooks was still establishing his blues credentials in 1995 when Knife Edge was released featuring the old Doc Watson track, “You Don’t Know My Mind,” with Ralf Grottian’s harmonica interludes adding style and authenticity. Williams proves he can write contemporary blues songs such as “Here Comes The Blues” as he exhorts, “...The world’s gone mad, it’s come unglued...,” enhanced by the exquisite vocal harmonies of Christine Collister and Phil Richardson’s inspired piano contributions.

Two other tracks from the most recent CD, Lucky Star, are given makeovers. “Jump That Train” is a fine addition to the repertoire of memorable train songs in blues history, thanks to Brooks’ brilliant slide guitar and powerful vocal duet with Collister. “Whatever It Takes” is transformed from a tear-jerking ballad on Lucky Star to a ragtime infused emphatic love song, such is Williams’ skill in writing several different melodies to the same set.

On “Georgia,” Brooks is nostalgic for his home town, “the Piedmont’s crowning jewel” reflected in the intricate finger picking style of the guitar playing and mellifluous. “Mercy Illinois” is the tale of a small town tragedy, the music less important than the true story. It is pure joy to watch Williams perform solo at a gig and to observe how he delivers the lyrics with such feeling and intensity whilst playing acoustic guitar with dexterity and desire, a scenario replicated on Duke Ellington’s “I Got It Bad (And It Ain’t Good).” This is front porch blues at its best.

“My Turn Now” is a fitting finale with its clipped phrasing, rhythmic grooves and sumptuous slide. Is this going to be the year of victory for the TT motorcycle racer? “...I’m tired of paying my dues, of being gracious when I lose...”

Brooks Williams has spent the past 30 years honing his craft and developing a sound which he has made unique by drawing upon and reworking the genres he has grown up with. It. Work My Claim is so much more than an album; it is a career-defining statement, an important legacy and a lifetime achievement.

--- Dave Scott

Terry HanckThree-time BMA winner Terry Hanck’s latest release, I Still Get Excited (TVR/VizzTone), ranks with his best efforts. The veteran saxophonist / singer / songwriter teams up with producer / multi-instrumentalist Kid Andersen for this powerhouse effort, along with regular bandmates Johnny “Cat Soubrand (guitar), Tim Wagar (bass), and Butch Cousins (drums), and guest artists Jim Pugh (keys), guitarist Chris Cain, drummer June Core, harmonica master Rick Estrin, and vocalists Tracy Nelson, Lisa Leuschner Andersen, and Whitney Shay.

The set list includes five originals from Hanck, plus six tasty covers that cover a wide range of blues styles. The rocking title cut is an original, with the 75-year-old Hanck proclaiming that he’s not going anywhere. “... I might be old as sin but in my mind I’m just a kid...”

“Smooth Tyrone” is, as the title might indicate, a cool, jazzy, Louis Jordan-esque swinger about a smooth operator who’s a snake in the grass underneath. Hanck also penned “Here It Comes,” an old school beach-flavored ballad, “Come On Back,” a shuffle that showcases Hanck’s sax and Estrin’s harp, and the lovely instrumental “Rosita.”

The covers include a simmering, extended read of Jordan’s “Early In The Morning,” with Cain sitting in on guitar, a gloriously funky, slightly updated take of Bobby Charles’ New Orleans R&B classic “Why People Like That,” and an outstanding interpretation of the Wolf’s “Howlin’ For My Darlin’.” Nelson then joins Hanck for the mid-tempo duet, “Spring.” There’s also a sharp, swinging version of Cleanhead Vinson’s “Hold It Right There” and a punched-up rendition of Lightnin’ Hopkins’ “Feel So Bad” that closes the disc in rousing fashion.

Hanck’s a force of nature on sax and his vocals are every bit as good. He’s equally at home with traditional and contemporary sounds as well, so his albums are always a pleasure to hear. I Still Get Excited is no exception.

--- Graham Clarke

Ben LevinAs you listen to Before Me (VizzTone), the new album from Ben Levin, you can’t help but smile because it’s a really entertaining set of piano blues that you will replay over and over. Levin was an 18-year-old first year college student when he recorded these tracks, which is one thing that should make your jaw drop. The other thing is how incredibly sharp this set is, with not a venture into pop territory --- it’s blues straight and well-done throughout with six Levin originals interspersed among six savvy covers.

Levin’s calm, assured vocals and his nuanced piano playing dominate the set, of course. He offers splendid covers of Big Bill Broonzy’s “I Feel So Good,” a pair of Freddie King tracks (the instrumental “This Morning,” aided by guitarist Bob Margolin and harp master Bob Corritore, and “Lonesome Whistle Blues”), Big Jay McShann’s “Confessin’ The Blues,” and James Cotton’s “Lightnin’,” where Margolin and Corritore are prominently featured again. There’s also a tasty cover of the Griffin Brothers’ mid ’50s R&B hit, “I Wanna Hug Ya, Kiss Ya, Squeeze Ya.”

Levin’s originals hold up well to the cover material. The rollicking “Pappy” describes an older friend who still has plenty of fuel in the tank, and “Before Me” has a distinct New Orleans feel as does the stylish instrumental “Creole Kitchen.” The cautionary tale, “So Soon,” is a smoky slow blues, and “Load Off My Back” is a cool Windy City shuffle. The closer, “Open Late,” is an after-hours instrumental collaboration between Levin, Margolin, and Corritore that you’ll wish would go on forever.

Ben Levin’s Before Me is a most impressive sophomore effort. I can’t wait to hear more from this exciting new talent.

--- Graham Clarke

Gracie CurranGracie Curran relocated from her native Boston to Memphis some time ago, and by listening to her latest release, Come Undone (VizzTone), produced by guitarist extraordinaire Damon Fowler and featuring a host of “friends” in accompaniment, the move was a wise one. Like many of the Bluff City’s finest singers of the past, Curran’s vocals are a perfect mix of soul and blues, with a dash of rock thrown in for good measure --- .a perfect match for the eight tunes presented on this lively set.

The title track kicks off the set, a slow-burning soul number with horns from Mark Earley (sax) and Doug Woolverton (trumpet) that Curran slowly brings to a boil with her powerful vocals. “Earnestine” is an acoustic tale reflecting on a different happy time in the past, and the swinging “Stay Up!” grooves with the horns, a rocking guitar break from Fowler, and a sassy vocal from Curran, who then ups the intensity and fire on the funky, mid-tempo ballad “The Things We Love.”

“Sweet Sativa” is a gently rocking elegy to an under-the-counter (in most areas) herbal remedy, while the rowdy “If Mama Ain’t Happy” is a blast and features the piano of Victor Wainwright. Curran slows it down for the smoldering, heartfelt “Love Is The Cruelest Thing I Know,” giving it an emotional reading that few others could hope to match. The album closes with the jaunty “Chasing Sunsets,” as she longs to return home from the road to her loved ones.

It would have been great to hear even more from Gracie Curran & Friends on this set, which clocks in at just 32 minutes. However, listening to Come Undone is a well-spent 32 minutes and you can always start it all over again, several times if necessary.

--- Graham Clarke

Alex LopezCleveland native and current Florida resident Alex Lopez’s latest effort, Yours Truly, Me (Maremil Music and Records), is a diverse set of blues, soul, rock, and pop. Backed by his touring band, the Xpress (Kenny Hoye – keyboards, Steve Roberts – bass, David Nunez – drums), Lopez offers 11 original tracks (including five from previous releases in re-arranged form) and one decidedly different cover tune.

Opening with the pop rocker, “Woe Is Me,” Lopez shows considerable vocal and guitar chops as the band provides supple, almost jazz-like rhythmic support. The album’s lone cover, ZZ Top’s “Tush,” is next, and Lopez gives it a complete makeover, transforming it into a funky R&B groover which is a nice surprise.

“Take Me Back Home” is a laidback, easy going acoustic blues, and “I’m A Working Man” is a tough, blue collar rocker. “I’m A Losing It” adds horns and carries an irresistible pop sensibility, while “I Love You Blues” is a strong blues ballad.

“I Can’t Stop” is a fun track that sounds like an updated rock version of a classic tune from the ’50s or ’60s, and “I Will Miss You” is a pop ballad which is uplifted by some excellent guitar work from Lopez. “Chase My Blues Away” is a short acoustic interlude, and “All I Really Want Is You” is a slick midtempo urban blues with a Latin tinge. The sultry “Sinful” teams Lopez with guest vocalist Elle Carr, and the spirited closer, “Cheating Blues” adds horns to end things with a bang.

Lopez certainly has the tools. In addition to his excellent guitar and strong vocals, he’s a gifted tunesmith as well. He shows a knack for performing blues, pop, rock, and R&B with equal flair. Yours Truly, Me is an entertaining and enjoyable listen and will certainly please fans of all four genres.

--- Graham Clarke

Dudley TaftDudley Taft takes a slightly different tack on his latest release, Simple Life (American Blues Artist Group). Don’t misunderstand. There’s still plenty of that potent, rock-edged blues guitar work that highlighted his previous efforts, but on this album Taft acknowledges some of his other musical influences, ranging from classic pop to contemporary rock, in addition to the blues. If you dig his previous efforts, you have nothing to worry about here. This is powerful stuff.

The jubilant, driving rocker, “Give Me A Song,” opens the disc, followed by the surging title track, where Taft reflects on his career and longs for settling down with his wife and dogs. “I Can’t Live Without You” is a tough mid-tempo blues ballad, and “In Your Way” is a hard-hitting (no pun intended) look at bullying in today’s society, while the encouraging “Don’t Let Them Get Away” mixes rock and funk with the blues.

“Death By Bliss” is a blues/grunge ballad, with Taft pulling from his years on the Seattle rock scene, which also is reflected on “Bombs Away,” where the guitarist lets it rip with heavy doses of Seattle native Jim Hendrix-influenced fret work. Taft previously recorded Warren Haynes’ modern blues standard “If Heartaches Were Nickels” on his 2016 live album, revisiting the track here with a slightly more restrained, but no less effective reading.

“Never Fade” is an interesting track, a gospel-flavored track that moves deftly between electric and acoustic passages. “Pouring Down” is a soaring rock tune, and “Shine” finds Taft paying tribute to the love of his life. He continues that theme on the closer, “Back To You,” where he longs to return to her from the road.

Taft dedicates the album to his wife (who also appears on the cover with him) and it’s obvious that Simple Life is a labor of love for him --- love for his spouse and love for the music that he grew up listening to and playing. This release is a superb addition to his catalog that blues rockers will want in their own collections.

--- Graham Clarke




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