Duke Ellington is seldom discussed in blues texts. This great composer and band leader created jazz music which owed more to classical forms than it did to the blues. So even with his centenary year, which was celebrated with fanfare last year, I don't think there were many tribute albums that were made by blues musicians. Until now ... the good Dr. John has decided that his first album for his new label, Blue Note, should be just that, a tribute to Duke's music. Or is it? Duke Elegant contains nothing but Duke Ellington compositions (or songs associated with his orchestra), but this is unmistakably a Dr. John album, full of the New Orleans funk and groove that has become synonymous with the on-stage persona of Mac Rebennack. If you except "Solitude" and "Do Nothin' 'til You Hear from Me," which add nothing transcendent to the genre of jazz ballads where silky voiced singers may be better suited, the rest of this disc is pure, irresistible boogie music. Of course, Dr. John tickles the piano as well as usual, and he also does a mean Jimmy Smith impersonation on a couple of soul/jazz instrumentals that just ooze with Hammond B-3. His regular band of recent years follows along, clearly enjoying themselves, with Ronnie Cuber featured on the saxophone on a couple of tracks.
Just as the music of Duke Ellington is eternal, so is the appeal of the lonesome travelling singer/songwriter armed with only a guitar and/or a harmonica, writing about life on the road, lost ones, the need to travel, etc. Montreal's Ray Bonneville is a perfect example of this lifestyle, having spent 20 years moving around the States, even earning a living at one point as a bush pilot. His latest album, Rough Luck, is being released on New York's Prime CD label, as Bonneville was "leased" by his regular label, Stony Plain. This was recorded live in the studio, with only Bonneville's guitar and harmonica to accompany his singing. The sound quality is pristine, and the listener cannot help but be drawn into the little vignettes depicted by Bonneville-the-songwriter. In many songs (including the title track), life is depicted as a series of blows and setbacks that are eventually followed by bright days. Like the song "Down on the Ground" says, "...Have you ever seen a cloud that didn't move, it'll be alright after a day or two..." Meditative, serious music that addresses real life with a rare honesty.
Rick L. Blues & The Swinging Fools' independently-produced first album (Eleven Past Eleven) offers nothing but originals, ranging from a piano-accompanied Christmas ballad, complete with scat-singing ("Special Treat for Christmas"), to a mandolin-driven gospel-like ditty ("Salvation Blues"). Sharing the writing duties are leader Rick L. Blues (no, he's not related to Jake and Elwood), who sings and plays harmonica, and his guitarist Francis "Mr. Love" D'Amour. The latter's songs often sound as if they could have been written in Memphis' Sun studios during the 50's, with a nice retro feel. The real standout, though, is a nine-minute harmonica and B-3 blow-out, with at least three changes of tempo ("Blues to Blow"). A nice and relaxed album with an authentic feel. (Info at email@example.com)
--- Benoît BrièreIf youve seen the PBS series, An American Love Story, you may already be familiar with Bill Sims. Sims family, an interracial family, was the subject of the well-received documentary. Sims, a gifted musician, has released his self-titled debut CD on Warner Bros./PBS Records. Some of the songs on this CD were also on the soundtrack to the documentary. Sims dabbles in several different styles, ranging from urban blues to soul, with touches of zydeco, jazz, and country blues as well. Thats a pretty full plate, but Sims handles it very well with his warm vocals and understated guitar (he also plays banjo on the closer, "Nobodys Fault But Mine"). The tracks are split between originals and covers. The standout originals include "I Want To See You Again," "Smoky City" (with saxophone by Chico Freeman and co-lead vocals by Sims daughter, Chaney), "Dark Moon Risin," and "Blues For Breakfast." The covers include "As The Years Go Passing By," Big Bill Broonzys "When Do I Get To Be Called A Man," and Keb Mos "Just Like You." It seems like most of todays blues artists are trying to tap into as many different styles as possible, most being successful. This is an excellent example of modern blues by a modern bluesman, and is highly recommended.
Chicago guitarist Lurrie Bell is one of the most talented blues musicians recording today, and has been for many years. He has recorded four fine CDs for Delmark in recent years. His talent as a guitarist and vocalist brings to mind Buddy Guy in his early stages. However, talented as he is, he has struggled for many years with personal demons, as have some of his other family members. In the late eighties, Bell made some recordings for JSP Records in England, the best of which are featured in JSPs new compilation, Young Mans Blues, The Best of the JSP Sessions, 1989-90. These recordings are taken from four different sessions and show that, when hes on his game, Lurrie Bell is a force to be reckoned with in the blues genre. Its hard to pick a favorite cut, but "Smokin Dynamite" is a wonderful slow burner with Lurrie delivering some of his most impassioned vocals. His guitar is predominant on all the cuts, not in that modern blues/rock sound, but more rooted in the Chicago Blues sound of the fifties. His brothers, Steve, Tyson and James, provide solid support on eight of the 13 tracks, which are a mix of covers and originals. Harpmaster Carey Bell, Lurries father, is present on one track, singing and blowing on "Second Hand Man." This is a solid CD from start to finish. One only hopes that Lurrie can defeat those demons and live up to his enormous potential. His is a talent thats much too great to squander.
Robert Cray departed from Mercury Records a couple of years ago and moved to Rykodisc in 1999, releasing Take Off Your Shoes last spring. At the end of 1999, Mercury released Heavy Picks: The Robert Cray Collection, which also compiles his work for Tomato and Hightone Records as well. All the familiar hits are here ("Smoking Gun," "Right Next Door," "I Guess I Showed Her") as well as some of his lesser-known, but equally powerful songs ("Phone Booth," "Playin in the Dirt," "Shiver," "Consequences," and the wonderful duet with Albert Collins "The Dream"). Combining his powerful vocals with his "less is more" guitar chops, Cray has always been as much about deep soul as the blues. He has also shown considerable improvement over the last few releases as a songwriter. My only complaint with this collection is that they could have done away with the annoying "Too Many Cooks" and the dull "Trick or Treat," and put a couple more Cray originals in their place. Thats a minor complaint, however, because this is an otherwise great introduction to one of the artists who put the blues back on the map in the mid-80s. If you dont have any of his work (yeah, right!), this is a great place to start.
--- Graham Clarke
Having an older brother that is a guitar legend can sometimes be a hindrance to your career. Just ask Phil Guy, Buddy's brother. The release of Say What You Mean (JSP) should finally silence all the critics who, for years, have compared the two. This 11 track collection of soul-infused Chicago blues is Phil's best work to date. Lavishly produced by Johnny Rawls and Bruce Feiner, who are on hand on rhythm guitar and tenor sax, this CD is a compelling listen with each selection flowing together to create a solid steady mood throughout. Phil's playing is smooth and clean without being overplayed to the point of boredom. He knows when to cut loose and when to hold back. His solos are perfectly timed and unobtrusive, adopting a bit of a "less is more" attitude this time out. Now that's not to say there aren't plenty of hair raising guitar solos on this album. "Fixin To Die" is eight minutes of thundering guitar bliss that might leave you wondering which Guy brother you are actually listening to. "Help Wanted Blues" and "I'm Leavin Right Now" are two numbers that explode with very funky rhythms, as does the one instrumental piece, "Four AM Blues." The shuffling "Last Of The Blues Singers" and "Last Time" are pure Chicago blues at their best and my personal favorites. To quote Phil himself from the liner notes, "In the year 2000 everybody's back on the floor dancing. This CD is a step in that direction, I was too much into the slow blues. I'm ready to boogie to stay in the game." Stay in the game he indeed does. This is a terrific CD from start to finish and should garner Phil much wider recognition than his previous efforts.
Releases from former Bluesbreaker and Rolling Stone guitarist Mick Taylor only happen every few years and usually are pretty good, but have been more of a blues/rock hybrid. A Stones Throw (Cannonball) continues in that vein with just enough blues thrown in to qualify as a blues album. Taylor's guitar work is his usual blend of running solos mixed with lush fills and bridges. "Blues In The Morning" and "Losing My Faith" demonstrate this quite nicely. All but two numbers out of ten are originals, and shows Taylor's songwriting to be fresh, original and well thought out. The two covers of "Here Comes The Rain" and Bob Dylan's "Blind Willie McTell" feature some interesting slide work with a slight country flavor. This is a good release. However, it loses a few points on Micks vocals. I found them to be slightly homogenized. Overall, the whole album has a laid back feel to it, definitely not a hardcore blues album. But it grows on you with each subsequent listen. This one could have been better, but should appeal to Mick Taylor fans.
After a career spanning five decades, Miss Mickey Champion is finally enjoying the success of her first commercial release as a featured artist. Now some of you may read this and say to yourself, "Why did it take five decades for a release?" That is a very good question, and one I'm still searching for an answer to because this lady is one of the most intense blues singers/shouters I've ever heard. I Am Your Living Legend (Tondef) is in actuality a live recording done at Babe & Rickeys Inn, located in Los Angeles, and is an eclectic mix of blues and jazz standards, most of which will be recognizable to most folks. Combining slow ballads and juke joint boogie, Mickey is sure to hit a nerve in everyone who hears this recording or is lucky enough to witness one of her live performances. The opening "The Next Time I See You" is a rolling groove that cooks from the opening note, as does "Rock Me Baby" and "Shake Rattle & Roll." Those three tunes in particular show off the juke joint shouter side to Mickey, while her covers of "Since I Fell For You," "At Last" and the classic "Stormy Monday" highlight the blues crooner in her soul. "Double Crossing Blues" is a Johnny Otis penned number that has been part of Champion's repertoire since her days with his band, and is a fun tune that is bound to make you smile. Mickey Champion is one of the last links to a bygone era of blues divas. The era when singers strutted and danced around the clubs they were performing in, interacting with their audience and often working without a microphone, which Champion still does to this day! (honest!). This recording captures this treasure of the blues working in her most natural and comfortable setting - in front of an audience. It can be mail ordered directly for $15 (plus handling $1.70) from Babe & Rickeys Inn, 4339 Leimert Blvd, Los Angeles, CA 90008 Attn: Jonathan Hodges. This is one CD that should not be missed. Oh, by the way ....... did I mention that Mickey is 75 years old?
--- Steve HinrichsenCalifornia-based Blue Stew serves up 12 tasty tracks on Destination: The Blues (Main St. Records). The band has been playing a mix of blues styles since 1994, and on this, their second CD, they show their versatility by doing mostly original material. Michael Millerwho handles lead guitar, slide and most of the vocal choreswrote eight of the songs, while fellow guitarist John Boutell penned three. The material ranges from the Elmore James-inspired Chicago blues of "Dont You Want a Man Like Me" to the jazzy "Keep Moving Along," with great Hammond B-3 organ from Jim Calire and tasty tenor sax work by Steve White. In addition, there are cuts with boogie piano, ballads and acoustic guitar, as well as the CD's only cover, a slow, almost ominous version of Leiber and Stollers "Love Potion Number Nine." These guys have honed their chops at Southern California clubs and as openers for groups including Duke Robillard, Little Feat, The Blasters, Roomful of Blues and others. It sure shows in this fun mixture of blues, roots and jazz.
The slogan of Malkum Gibsons Handlebar Productions is "Music Inspired By Tradition" and thats a very accurate description of Walk On (Buckatoon), by the duo Malkum & Chris. Chris is Chris Kleeman who plays acoustic guitar and National Steel slide alongside Gibsons harmonica. These two have mined the history of Delta and Piedmont blues to come up a selection of cuts written by Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee (for whom they seem to have a real affinity, they do three songs), Mississippi John Hurt, Blind Boy Fuller, Muddy Waters, Willie Dixon, Elmore James and Blind Willie McTell. Big shoes to fill, but these guys are up to it, with tasteful arrangements and spirited playing. Malkum & Chris first recorded together about 30 years ago when they cut an LP, Just the Blues, produced by B.B. King. They went their separate musical ways after that (Gibson playing harp with a number of artists and as a member of a touring music and dance company, Kleeman playing with a number of blues acts and releasing three solo CDs), meeting again last year to rediscover their common love of blues. They both shine on "Rollin and Tumblin" with its frenetic slide and harp work and vocals by Kleeman. The slide also stands out on a Gibson original, "I Love the Way You Everything." Lovers of blues harp will find much to like in Gibsons playing. Whether backing up a vocal or out in front, he can blow, from slow and mournful to fast and funky.
Im Ready is the title of Bobby Nathans MidiCity Records CD, and its appropriatethis is mature, focused guitar playing. The New York guitarist opens with a blistering version of Willie Dixons "Let Me Love You Baby." Accompanied by the Uptown Horns and Jan Mulany on Hammond B-3, the cut really smokes. The pace doesnt let up with the next song, Alan Toussaints "Get Out My Life Woman." And when Nathan decides to slow it down, he chooses Jimi Hendrixs "My Friend." Takes guts for any guitar player to cover Hendrix (he also does Jimis "Hear My Train A Comin"), but this is a solid version, aided by the excellent harp of Rob Papparossi. And speaking of guts, he also covers Stevie Ray Vaughans "Empty Arms," in addition to songs by Jimmy Reed and Albert King. The arrangements are first rate and his band is tight as a drum. Bobby Nathan runs a Monday night blues jam at The Lounge on West 72nd Street in New York. Judging from this CD, it must be a lot of fun.
For a number of years Ive vacationed with friends in Maine. And while Im used to running into other guys named Mark Miller over the years, it was always kind of a kick to see ads for shows by Mark "Guitar" Miller in New England. Ive been curious, but never was able to get to a gig. Now, with the release of Naked Soul (TGS) Im able to satisfy my curiosity. An accomplished guitarist, his playing is fluid and covers a range of styles, from that of B.B. King to Mark Knopfler and Danny Gatton. His playing benefits from keyboards, harmonica and Hammond B-3 organ. Millers range includes more than just straight blues. He gets a country/folk feel with his "Old Gray Ford" (one of the nine songs he wrote on this 13-cut CD). And his guitar and vocals on "Motherless Children" recalls Claptons version, while remaining original. The next time Im up north, Ill make a serious effort to see this other MM.
--- Mark K. Miller
Mark Wenner has always carried a reputation as a musician's musician, and one of the finest blues harp players around. A charter members of Washington, D.C.'s The Nighthawks for the last 25+ years, Wenner has also found the time to work with various other bands. Runs Good; Needs Paint (Right On Rhythm) is a strong collection of 14 recordings made as part of other Wenner projects between 1984 and 1998. Half of the songs were recorded live at a 1996 reunion with the rockabilly band Switchblade, with whom Wenner recorded an album, Fugitive, in 1984. The sound quality on the live cuts is passable, but the energy of the evening more than makes up for the lower fidelity. The rootsy rock guitar work of Ratso (aka Jim Silman) and Steuart Smith, especially on Elvis' "Too Much," is exemplary. Another fun number is "Lonesome Fugitive," featuring nice interplay between Wenner's harmonica and Smith's guitar. Wenner's best blues harp playing is heard on the two Muddy Waters covers, "Too Young To Know" and "Rollin' and Tumblin'," with the always excellent slide guitar work of Bob Margolin, along with bassist Jeff Sarli and drummer Big Joe Maher. Runs Good; Needs Paint also contains recordings made with The Bel Airs, The Nighthawks, and National steel guitarist Terry Garland (the latter a stirring instrumental rendition of "Amazing Grace"). Another killer harmonica instrumental is the jazzy "Chitlins Con Carne." A strong disc, especially of interest to longtime fans of The Nighthawks.
MCA records has released two more fine reissues in their Millennium Collection, this time coming out with greatest hits collections from Bobby Bland and Bo Diddley. While they've put out better sets from both artists in the past, these are both fine albums, and a good start for novices. The Best of Bobby Bland contains several classics from his Duke Records days, including the essential "I Pity The Fool," "Turn On Your Love Light," and "Stormy Monday Blues." Among the two tunes from his sessions for Dunhill Records includes the fabulous soul chestnut "I Wouldn't Treat A Dog (The Way You Treated Me)." The Best of Bo Diddley is made up of Checker singles covering the years 1955 through 1962. One of my favorite Bo songs, "You Can't Judge A book By Its Cover," is here, as well as other Diddley standards "Bo Diddley," "I'm A Man," "Who Do You Love?," and "Road Runner." Serious collectors will already have all of the songs on these discs, but both are a good starting point for everyone else.
Calvin Jackson is a native of the Mississippi Delta region, and since the age of 13 has been playing drums and singing in various blues and gospel groups in the area around his hometown of Senatobia, Mississippi. Most notably, he was the drummer for R.L. Burnside's 1980s band The Sound Machine. Goin' Down South (Beatville Records) was recorded in Holland with local musicians backing Jackson. The result is a nice, raw blues album, not as gritty as what would have come out of a Delta recording studio but a good release nonetheless. Jackson is a strong singer with deep gospel roots, most evident on "It's Gonna Rain." I also liked his version of "When My First Wife Left Me," done in a dirge-like tempo with nice harp work from Lazy Lew Beckers. "Leaving Train Blues" is a good, driving train song. The album closes with a pleasant slow blues "Grinnin'." The liner notes claim this as an original number, but it's much, much too close to Son House's "Grinnin' In Your Face" to be called an original number.
Another surprisingly good disc comes from Beatville Records, a reissue of a 1996 album I See Trouble from Monti Amundson. This is a nice album of foot tappin' blues featuring Amundson's acoustic guitar and pleasant vocals, backed by a swingin' band. The title cut is a catchy tune that gets the album started off right. Amundson's best guitar pickin' is heard on the hook-laden shuffle "You Win, I Lose," while his best vocal work can be heard on his version of "King Bee" and "I'm Good."
--- Bill Mitchell
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