Blues Bytes

February 1997

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Holmes Brothers CD cover The Holmes Brothers check in with their fourth disk for Rounder Records, Promised Land, and it’s the best since their wonderful 1990 debut release In The Spirit. These guys harmonize as well as any group on the blues circuit --- just listen to "Got Myself Together," a typical Holmes Brothers-sounding song highlighted by Wendell Holmes driving guitar. The most delightful part of the Holmes Brothers is that they’ve never been afraid to tackle any style of music; one of the best cuts is a simple, beautiful version of Tom Waits’ "Train Song." Drummer Popsy Dixon, whose falsetto vocals typically run shivers up and down my spine, does it again with Lennon & McCartney’s "And I Love Her." And of course it wouldn’t be a typical Holmes Brothers album without a stirring gospel number, and on Promised Land they give us the beautiful "I Surrender All." Another fine release by one of the most original and innovative groups in the world.

MCA Records is constantly digging into the Chess Records vaults and releasing some of the best blues ever recorded. I’ll admit right now that Little Walter has always been my main blues cat, so it’s good to see the first appearance on CD of Confessin’ The Blues. These cuts were recorded from 1953 through 1963, covering all periods of Walter’s career from shortly after he left The Muddy Waters Band until several years before his untimely death in ‘68. Confessin’ The Blues was originally released on vinyl in 1974 as part of the Chess Vintage Series. There are some classics here, such as "It Ain’t Right," "Crazy Mixed Up World," "Rock Bottom," and one of my favorite Walter tunes, "One More Chance With You." If you don’t have any Little Walter CDs, then start with one of his greatest hits collections on MCA. Otherwise, don’t miss the chance to add Confessin’ The Blues to your collection.

Mark Hummel CD CoverOne of the younger contemporary harmonica turks is Mark Hummel. While based on the west coast, Hummel attempts to capture the old time Chicago blues sound on his latest, Heart Of Chicago (Tone-Cool). To do so he headed for the Windy City and rounded up some of Chi-town’s best blues players: Willie "Big Eyes" Smith, Bob Stroger, Barrelhouse Chuck, Billy Flynn, Steve Freund and Dave Myers. Inspired by the surroundings and these great blues musicians, Hummel turns out a solid blues album. He kicks it off with Little Walter’s "My Kind Of Baby," on which his harp playing has never sounded better. The original instrumental "Rockin’ At The Riverside" is also a gem. However, I thought that Hummel’s vocals were stronger on his previous album, Married To The Blues (Flying Fish), from 1995.

A disk which turned out to be a pleasant surprise came from Corvallis, Oregon. Dave Plaehn & Jeff Hino’s On Your Bond (Nontrivial Records) is a nice collection of primarily acoustic tunes featuring good harmonica from Plaehn and National steel guitar by Hino. Plaehn is also a decent vocalist, somewhat reminiscent of folk singer Jesse Winchester. My favorite here is a cover of Gus Cannon’s "Wild About My Lovin'," which features Plaehn’s strongest singing, good Fender lap steel guitar by Hino, and nice harmony by a couple of female background vocalists. Since this one might not be readily available from your favorite record store, check for more info at Jeff Hino’s web site.

Roomful of Blues CD CoverA new CD from Roomful of Blues is always a welcome addition to my blues library, and their latest, Under One Roof (Bullseye Blues) is no exception. This one follows the formula of past releases: powerful vocals and harmonica by Sugar Ray Norcia, stinging blues guitar by Chris Vachon, a solid veteran rhythm section, and one of the best horn sections around. Vachon gets to showcase his formidable talents on the instrumental "We B 3" (Has someone here studied Ebonics?); you’ll want to play this one over and over. The horn section gets to show off on another instrumental, "Q's Blues." I'm also fond of their versions of "Smack Dab In The Middle" and "Switchin’ In The Kitchen." A fun party album.

A band from Tucson, Arizona covers much of the same musical territory as Roomful, but with a smaller entourage. Actually Bad News Blues Band puts out a full sound for only a five piece ensemble, with occasional guests, on their disk Cruisin' For A Bluesin' (Trope Records). This is a decent collection of 13 mostly original tunes. The weakest link with Bad News Blues Band is the vocals. Music like this cries out for a big-voiced blues shouter, and that shortcoming keeps Cruisin' For A Bluesin' from receiving a big thumbs up.

Peggy Scott-Adams’ new CD, Help Yourself (Mardi Gras Records), is notable for the success of the single "Bill" in urban markets. "Bill" has become a huge seller in these markets, and tiny Mardi Gras Records has had trouble filling that demand. The song is about a woman who lost her man, not to the other woman, but to another man. Lines like "...but all the time it was Bill who was sleeping with my man..." and "...my man was a queen who thought he was a king..." have been hitting the urban contemporary radio waves of the eastern and southern parts of the U.S. The rest of the songs by Scott-Adams, a former backup singer for Ben E. King, are about more traditional contemporary blues topics, like losing your man to the other woman, getting rid of a no-good man, etc. But "Bill" will undoubtedly be the biggest hit of Peggy Scott-Adams' career.

One of the most maligned albums in blues history is Muddy Waters' Electric Mud (Chess/MCA). Muddy himself hated the album. For those of you who have forgotten, Electric Mud was Chess' attempt to update Muddy's Chicago blues with a psychedelic sound. After all, Muddy hadn't had a big hit in a decade, Jimi Hendrix was a big star, and Chess felt that the record could be marketed to “these so-called hippies.” They were right. Electric Mud sold between 150,000 and 200,000 copies, a lot for a blues record. And Muddy began sharing the bill with acid-rock bands at venues like The Fillmore, The Electric Circus, and The Kinetic Playground. With MCA's re-release of the album, I decided to listen to it with an open mind. Of course, it pales mightily in comparison with Muddy’s straight blues recordings, which of course are among the best ever made. But if you put it in the proper perspective, Electric Mud isn’t that bad. After all, it’s still Muddy singing, which is a darned sight better than listening to most other vocalists. The accompaniment is mostly ‘60s psychedelic stuff, which sounds pretty incongruous to Muddy’s straight blues vocals. The cut that shouldn’t have been recorded was a version of the Stones’ "Let’s Spend The Night Together." I suspect that Muddy wasn’t really into this one. But "Mannish Boy" comes across reasonably well; the original had a lot of whoopin’ and hollerin’, so the wah wah guitar doesn’t sound too out of place. Keep this album around to help you remember some of the crazy things that went down during that equally bizarre decade.

Luther Johnson CD CoverI was experiencing kind of a deja vu while listening to the latest Luther "Guitar Junior" Johnson CD, Doin’ The Sugar Too (Bullseye Blues). Then I noticed the liner note stating that this CD was originally released by Rooster Blues in 1981. Please forgive my momentary oversight --- it’s been a long, long time since I’ve gone through my vinyl collection. Doin’ The Sugar Too has held up well over the years. It’s good basic Chicago blues with a little funky dance music thrown in for good measure. The title cut is a good uptempo tune; a shorter alternative take has been added for this CD. Luther and the band are particularly inspired on their version of B.B.’s "Woke Up This Mornin’." Finally, Johnson shows his Magic Sam influence with a real nice cover of "Hard Times (Have Surely Come)."

Zakiya Hooker, the daughter of blues legend John Lee Hooker, makes her recording debut with Flavors Of The Blues (Pointblank). Don’t be expecting a carbon copy of her father, as Ms. Hooker’s sound has a much more contemporary and urban flavor. She’s a pleasant singer, although lacking somewhat in power and range. The best cut is the slow blues "Receipt To Sing The Blues." She’s joined by her famous blues dad for a duet on "Bit By Love (Hard Times)," which also features Charlie Musselwhite guesting on harmonica. A promising debut.

Zydeco veteran Boozoo Chavis is back with a new one, Hey Do Right! for Antone’s/Discovery. Chavis’ style consists more of traditional Cajun music and less blues influence, but this is still an album which will appeal to any lover of roots music. The album starts out with the danceable "Zydeco Cha Cha," serving notice that this is going to be a fun disk. You’ll really grin while listening to the words to "You’re Gonna Look Like A Monkey" and "I Got A Camel." If those cuts aren't bluesy enough for you, then listen to the slow weeper "Mother’s Blues."

--- Bill Mitchell

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