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February 1998

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Delmark Records makes a big splash this month with four excellent CDs of Chicago blues regulars and one delightful reissue. All Night Long from Byther Smith was in the running for my Pick Hit selection until the Dave Myers disc came along and blew away the competition. With Luther Allison now gone, no other contemporary artist can match Smith for the pure intensity of his music. The album begins with a very intense slow blues, "Cried Like A Baby Child." Another hot tune is "Walked All Night Long," with stinging guitar from Smith and a real nice horn section. If you're a fan of West Side Chicago blues and you're not familiar with the music of Byther Smith, then All Night Long should find a home in your CD collection soon.

The Four BlazesThe Four Blazes were a popular Chicago combo in the early 1950s, hitting the top of the charts in '52 with the single "Mary Jo." Delmark has now released a wonderful collection of two dozen tunes recorded for United Records by The Four Blazes on a collection titled Mary Jo. These guys were more of an R&B/jump combo, unlike the bulk of the blues artists recording in Chicago at the same time. In addition to the aforementioned hit, you can hear excellent T-Bone Walker-style guitar from Floyd McDaniel on "Please Send Her Back To Me."

Floyd McDaniel - West Side BabyFloyd McDaniel continued playing the blues in Chicago until his death in 1995. I regret that I never had the opportunity to hear McDaniel in person, but at least we've now got a delightful live album from Delmark in West Side Baby. He's backed on this date in Europe by Dave Specter and the Bluebirds. McDaniel's guitar playing is nearly as crisp as on the Four Blazes' recordings. He leads the band through classics like "St. Louis Blues," "Route 66," "Everyday I Have The Blues" and "Sweet Home Chicago."

Karen Carroll falls into the same category as fellow Chicago strong-voiced singers Koko Taylor, Big Time Sarah and Bonnie Lee. But Ms. Carroll can also tenderly caress a ballad, as we frequently hear on her newest release, Talk To The Hand (Delmark). The title cut is a great uptempo number, and she shows her gospel roots on the spirited "Tired Of Being Mistreated."

The last Delmark release in this batch is from veteran harmonica player Golden "Big" Wheeler. Jump In is a pleasant, if not real dynamic, album. It takes Wheeler and the band a little while to get warmed up, but they really cook on the final cut "You're So Fine." Wheeler turns in his best harp performance on this song. The slow blues "Big Mishap" is also good.

Blues Across America - ChicagoCannonball Records continues its trip around the country in search of relatively obscure blues artists to feature in their Blues Across America series. The Chicago Scene features singers Robert Plunkett, the late Emery Williams Jr. and Little Arthur Duncan. Plunkett is best known to me for his recent work as drummer with Eddie Shaw & The Wolf Gang, but on his four songs he steps to the front as the singer. He's a very nice singer, especially on the blues number "Stranded In St. Louis." The highlight of this collection is the powerful vocal work turned in by Williams; "I'm Guilty" is an excellent slow blues. Duncan is a Slim Harpo-style singer and harmonica player. I'll say it again --- let's hope that Cannonball continues their trek through the nation's blues highways. I somehow missed out on the Detroit collection (would some reader like to submit a belated review of that one?), but I was equally impressed with the Dallas set from a few months ago.

The woefully under-recorded Detroit guitarist Johnnie Bassett is making up for lost time. Cadillac Blues (Cannonball) is his third new CD in the past six months, and I think it's his best yet. Bassett is a downhome style artist who prefers the seemingly incongruous backing of jazzy ensembles like his band, The Blues Insurgents, on this disc. And it works very well! The title cut should be in the running for song of the year, as Bassett cheerfully sings "...I've still got the blues, but I've got 'em in my Cadillac..." "Raise The Roof, Raise The Rent" is a great jump blues featuring Bassett's deft touch on guitar.

Susan Tedeschi - Just Won't BurnA major new blues talent on the scene, out of the Boston area, is Susan Tedeschi. Just Won't Burn (Tone-Cool) gives Ms. Tedeschi a chance to show off her powerful voice and strong guitar chops. I started doubting the press clippings while listening to the first cut, "Rock Me Right," on which I really didn't care for her rough-edged vocals. But then she showed a little restraint with her voice without losing the power, especially on "You Need To Be With Me" and the excellent "Friar's Point." "Can't Leave You Alone," a catchy tune with plenty of hooks, shows second guitarist Adrienne Hayes as another strong player.

B-3 aficionados will enjoy Kiss My Blues (Tone-Cool) from longtime Ronnie Earl sideman Tony Z. An added treat on this CD is the appearance of the fine guitarist Cornell Dupree. Tony Z is backed by a tight band, and he also shows himself to be a strong vocalist.

While we're on this topic, be sure to check out The B-3 And Me (Bullseye Blues & Jazz) by the young New Orleans keyboardist Davell Crawford. This disc is much different than Crawford's debut CD on Rounder from 1995, which was much more of a mixed bag. The B-3 And Me is pretty much jazzier, and only features one vocal performance, the excellent "Please Don't Talk About Me When I'm Gone" with Germaine Basil. The CD kicks off with a version of "Ooh Wee Sugar," done originally by Davell's grandfather Sugarboy Crawford.

Roy Book Binder has been traveling the countryside and recording for 30 years. His new CD, Polk City Ramble (Rounder), is a collection of 16 acoustic numbers. There's no doubt that Book Binder is an accomplished guitarist and decent singer, and I've always enjoyed his albums. But there always seems to be too much of an academic feel to his recordings, as if I'm listening to the blues in a museum. But there's a nice version of Blind Willie McTell's "Married Man's A Fool."

HighTone Records continues their excellent series reissuing the Mississippi and Memphis recordings from High Water Records. The second collection, She-Wolf, from Jessie Mae Hemphill is a must-have for fans of contemporary Delta blues. This one includes several 45s that were Ms. Hemphill's first recordings, plus the contents of the She-Wolf album, released only in France. You'll recoup your investment in the CD merely by listening repeatedly to the hypnotic "Jump, Baby, Jump." On "Overseas Blues," Jessie Mae tells the story of her experiences spreading her brand of Mississippi blues around the world.

Alligator Records was formed by Bruce Iglauer over 25 years ago primarily to record Hound Dog Taylor & The Houserockers. Iglauer has now paid tribute to Taylor with Hound Dog Taylor - A Tribute, featuring cuts from many of the artists currently in the Alligator as well as a few other guests. This excellent collection is highlighted by cuts from Luther Allison, Son Seals, Bob Margolin, Magic Slim, Lil' Ed, and former Hound Dog Taylor roadie George Thorogood. Also good is an acoustic number, "It's Alright," by Living Color's Vernon Reid and Alvin Youngblood Hart. The only cut that doesn't seem to belong here is an original tune by Ronnie Earl and friends.

Chess Blues GuitarMCA has thankfully extended into 1998 their tribute to Chess Records' 50th Anniversary with three more fine collections. Chess Blues Guitar is a double-CD with 45 wonderful examples of various guitar styles from the Chess vaults. Of course the regulars like Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, Buddy Guy, Elmore James, Jimmy Rogers, etc. are here. But this set is valuable for the more obscure recordings, like Blue Smitty's rollicking "Date Bait" and Danny Overbea's "Forty Cups Of Coffee" (later covered by Bill Haley). Another double-CD issues The Complete '50s Chess Recordings of John Lee Hooker. Need I say anything more about this collection? Finally, doo wop stars The Dells are commemorated with Oh, What A Night! - The Great Ballads. You've heard "Oh, What A Night" so many times you know it by heart, but now you can hear 14 other classics from this excellent vocal group.

New Orleans guitarist Bryan Lee was captured in fine form one night on Bourbon Street, and the result is Live at the Old Absinthe House Bar Friday Night (Justin Time Records). Special guests at the show included James Cotton on harmonica, and guitarists Kenny Wayne Shepherd and Mahogony Rush's Frank Marino. The celebs don't overshadow Lee, although Marino gets a little too excessive at times. Lee's original "Braille Blues Daddy" starts the show with a good, oldtime revival meeting feel. Cotton plays real nice harp on an extended version of "Five Long Years."

Every few years I have the chance to see the legendary Pinetop Perkins in concert, and I never pass up the opportunity. With Perkins now well into his 80s, I always figure that it could be the last time I get to see him. But that rascal keeps getting stronger and stronger. There have been no shortage of recordings made by the venerable pianist recently, and now we've got the wonderful Down In Mississippi (HMG/HighTone). This one features 'Top playing solo, with 13 songs recorded during two sessions in 1996 and 1997. Many of the tunes have been  recorded by Perkins on previous albums, but having achieved true "legend" status, he's entitled to repeat material. Besides, I never tire of hearing Perkins doing "Pinetop's Boogie Woogie," "How Long," "Take It Easy Baby," and "Kidney Stew." A nice instrumental which I don't recall from previous albums is "Pinetop's Piano Shuffle."

HighTone Records has now reissued Chris Smither's Another Way To Find You, originally released by the now defunct Flying Fish Records in 1991. The acoustic guitar wizard recorded these 18 numbers in front of a live studio audience, giving the disc a nice, homey "living room" feel. Smither does a nice selection of blues standards, most notably a fun medley of "High Heel Sneakers / Big Boss Man." There's also a nice restrained version of Jerry Garcia's "Friend of the Devil."

Three recent CDs came in recently from Washington, D.C.-based Right On Rhythm Records. The Blues You Would Just Hate To Lose - Vol. 1 is an interesting collection of live recordings made by label owner Wayne Kahn. Fidelity is marginal at times, but you can overlook it because generally there's a real special feel to the performances. Kahn has unearthed some of D.C.'s hidden blues treasures for this disc, and their cuts make up the gems on this collection. Most notable are performances from Nap Turner with The Alex Jenkins Trio ("The Lover and the Married Woman") and the Dohn Nunley Quartet (a jazzy "Parker's Mood"). Other notables on the collection include Danny Morris, Big Joe Maher, Alex Schultz, and Big Jesse Yawn. The second CD is Nasty Girls, a collection of live recordings from zydeco artist Roy Carrier and the Night Rockers. Sound quality is generally good, although sometimes the vocals are a little too low in the mix. This is just good basic country zydeco from one its longtime purveyors. Finally, Right On Rhythm has issued a very good collection of acoustic blues from D.C. artist Robert Lighthouse. On Drive-Thru Love, Lighthouse shows himself to be a nice guitar player and pleasant singer who doesn't put out a sterilized or sanitized blues sound like too many other acoustic performers.

A couple of Chicago street cats, Kraig Kenning and Steve Arvey, have released a collection of mostly acoustic blues entitled Pass The Hat. This is an enjoyable album of mostly traditional songs with a few originals thrown in for good measure. Both of these guys are solid guitarists and, while not strong vocalists, their voices aren't annoying. Kenning plays some mean slide on Lightnin' Hopkins' "Katey Mae." "Someday" is a good original tune.

--- Bill Mitchell

Sing It!Sing It! (Rounder) features the vocal talents of Marcia Ball, Tracy Nelson and Irma Thomas. This CD is similar to Antone's 1990 release of Dreams Come True which also featured a trio of divas including Ball, Angela Strehli and Lou Ann
Barton. Another similarity is this CD is excellent. Sing It! is better, because it includes seven original songs, and the title cut has only been recorded by a local Louisiana band, so there are plenty of fresh songs. Ball and Thomas co-wrote one song each. Each singer takes a couple songs backed by the other two, and on the remaining songs they share the lead vocal duties as a trio or in some combination of two
of them. All of the singers sound outstanding, especially Tracy Nelson whose vocal performance on "In Tears" is stunning, and it is the highlight of this disk. "Love Maker" is a lot of fun, and puts a woman's voice to a "I Just Want
to Make Love to You" theme, and includes a great line "You say, 'What you makin' for supper?' I say 'Reservations.'" Three songs could become country hits. "In Tears," "Heart to Heart," and "He's Mine," are great songs and blur the line between blues and country (not the
insipid country music they play on the radio around here). Marcia Ball singing "He's Mine" is reminiscent Patsy Cline singing "She's Got You." The song is a heartbreaker: he's long gone, she still thinks he's coming back, but you know all that's left for her is the crap he left at her place and doesn't want back. The songs also include bouncing New Orleans rhythms usually powered by Ball's piano playing, and great R&B including Thomas' "Woman on the Move." And some slow, sad blues are here, too: "Please No More," another song sung by Nelson whose vocal performance here left me trembling. This is a solid CD from beginning to end.

--- Tony Nowicki

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