Blues Bytes

March 2004

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What's New

Bare BluesBlind Pig Records has adopted the marketing strategy of "sex sells" with their latest batch of anthology discs. The CD covers of each of the three discs features a seductive-looking model in a variety of provocative poses. The best of this titillating trilogy, entitled Bare Blues, features the young lady naked from the waist up, with the parts only Janet Jackson would show on network TV covered by a saxophone. Her pose on the front cover shows that she's got a tattoo of a butterfly around the area of her left shoulder blade, while the back cover photo puts her ample cleavage on display ... Wait, what did you say? You actually want to read about the music in this collection. OK, if we must, here goes ... Bare Blues is subtitled Instrumental Gems, so I reckon that the name of the disc really applies to the music inside. Yeah, right. Actually, the music inside is just about as hot as ... alright, no more double entendre references, I promise. The Blind Pig compilers have culled 15 instrumental cuts from various albums. It's all pretty spirited music, good for popping into the CD player while you're cruising down the highway. While the up-tempo numbers are what make this album rock, two laid-back tunes are the highlights of Bare Blues. Slide guitarist Bob Margolin's acoustic duo with his sister Sherry, on the gospel piano, on "Consolation" is a beautiful number, while Bill Perry's "Morning Spiritual" is just plain righteous, sounding eerily similar to Curtis Mayfield's "People Get Ready." Other strong numbers include "Ethel's Place," a hot duet with pianist Deanna Bogart and the late guitarist Danny Gatton, Chubby Carrier's Zydeco tune "Luziana Feelin'," the harmonica and drum workup done by Kim Wilson and Willie "Big Eyes" Smith, and Nick Curran's swingin' "Stompin' At The Fort." Now, I trust that you're all going to buy this compilation for the music and not the racy pictures ... right?

The young lady takes to the road on the second Blind Pig collection, White Line Flyers, a set of 15 songs about cars and the highway. She's fully dressed this time as she stands along the side of the road trying to hitch a ride. Jimmy Thackery and the Drivers contributes two strong numbers, "Mercury Blues" and "Drive To Survive," to this disc. Blues veteran Arthur Adams does a catchy blues, "Back On Track," about being away from his baby. Deborah Coleman shows that she's ready to hit the road on "Goodbye Misery,
on which she plays some mean slide. A strong up-tempo number comes from the underrated Portland guitarist Lloyd Jones. The disc closes with the down-home blues pairing of Big Bill Morganfield & Taj Mahal on "You're Gonna Miss Me" --- a great way to end the compilation.

Ms. Blind Pig puts a serious pout on her face for the cover of If This Is Love ... I'd Rather Have The Blues, an anthology of tales of sweet love gone sour. Debbie Davies presents the woman's side of this case of bad love on "Wrong Man For Me." Few artists can sound so convincing in talking about woman troubles than Chris Cain, who of course gets two songs on this set: "Middle Name Is Trouble" and the always excellent "You're The Kind Of Woman That Ain't That Hard To Find." Lloyd Jones returns with an up-tempo blues shuffle à la B.B. King, "Treat Me Like The Dog I Am." Great tune! A fun album, especially if you're coming off a nasty relationship.

Harmonica wizard Billy Gibson has come out with an album of jazzy instrumentals entitled In A Memphis Tone (Inside Memphis). He proves to be quite adept with his instrument on the eight tunes here, usually playing the chromatic harmonica. Gibson is backed by a solid group that includes organist Charlie Wood, a recording artist in his own right. This is not the kind of music that you'll be playing to liven up your next party. Rather, it suffices quite well as background music --- never arousing a lot of emotion, but settling in nicely behind dinner conversation. It's not "eatin' ribs, greens and cornbread" kind of dinner music, but rather something that might be playing in the background while a party of four eats sushi, politely discussing the relative merits of the available dipping sauces. You get the idea.

Jessie Mae HemphillJessie Mae Hemphill missed out on the Fat Possum craze. Unlike fellow North Mississippi blues artists like R.L. Burnside, who became the darling of the alt-rock bunch with his albums on Fat Possum label and his recordings with Jon Spencer, Ms. Hemphill couldn't cash in on that movement after a 1993 stroke left her unable to play the guitar. With her hypnotic, droning guitar style and sweet, backwoods personality, Jessie Mae would have been a star. To supplement the previous collections of her late '70s / early '80s recordings for High Water Records, the Inside Memphis label is releasing unissued material from that same period. Get Right Blues is a wonderful collection of 15 cuts from sessions in 1979, 1984 and 1985, and includes some of her favorites that she often performed live: "Streamline Train," "All Night Boogie (Jessie's Boogie)"," "Shake Your Boot (Shake It, Baby," "Jessie's Love Song (Tell Me You Love Me)," and "Go Back To Your Used To Be." Especially powerful is "Lord, Help the Poor & Needy," on which Jessie Mae accompanies herself only with a tambourine. Another strong gospel number is her duet, "He's a Mighty Good Leader," with Compton Jones, on which Jessie Mae taps out the rhythm on a hat box while Jones shakes a tambourine. This is another great collection of recordings from one of the most unique and authentic artists of our day.

While her stroke may have kept Jessie Mae Hemphill out of the public eye, it hasn't kept her away from music. Unable to play the guitar, she still sings in church and is able to tap out the beat on the tambourine. She's also loved by her legions of admirers, many of whom gathered to pay tribute to her on Dare You To Do It Again (219 Records). Musicians came from all over to gather with Jessie Mae at a house party in Como, Mississippi. Microphones were set up and the tape was rolling, resulting in a two-CD album and a subsequent DVD. There's some great, spirited music, with a variety of musicians backing Jessie Mae's gospel singing. It's got the spirit of a bunch of friends getting together to make music together --- a little ragged and disorganized, but full of good times. Disc one opens with a brief fife & drum intro, a style of music from the hills of north Mississippi that is part of Jessie Mae's bloodlines. The rest of the disc contains gospel standards with a lot of between song chatter. Disc two isn't quite so good, as one cut, "Treat Me Right," drones on and on for over 23 minutes. It really sounds like one minute of mostly instrumental music looped over and over --- the musicians really don't say anything that couldn't have been done in about three minutes. And that's the problem with this disc --- it's in serious need of editing. A lot of the idle chatter and dead air should have been cut out without losing the impromptu spirit of the day. There is plenty of quality material here for one complete CD, but stretching it out to a second disc keeps it from being a Pick Hit. Still, it's something that's worth having in your collection.

--- Bill Mitchell

While the end of 2003 has seen a slew of high-profile releases tied-in with the official Year of the Blues, including lavish box sets and scores of new compilations from blues artists from the (sometimes recent, sometimes faraway) past, there’s some comfort to be found in the fact that local talent is still found in abundance on contemporary releases. Consider if you will Exhibit A: the debut release of Boston-area Jumpin’ Juba, titled Bumpity Bump (Bonel’ss Records). Jumpin’ Juba consists of singer-songwriter and guitarist Steve Hurl and fleet-fingered pianist Bruce Ward, backed by a young rhythm section of Brian Flan on drums and Chris Denune on bass. The band is not one to rehash one more cover of Muddy Waters, BB King or John Lee Hooker; when they do go for a cover version, they opt to mine the catalog of Ma Rainey and of Casey Bill Weldon. But actually, the core of the material (11 of the 13 tracks) on this debut is self-penned; there are fun, made-for-dancing tunes, reflexive and/or acerbic commentaries on our social mores, a fast rockabilly-styled risqué number, a couple of instrumental tracks showcasing Ward’s piano playing, and the requisite good-woman-gone-bad workouts. Hurl is a capable songwriter, his funniest moment coming on this verse of “Best Buy in Town”: “I was checking out used cars at Honest John’s/ The man said, 'This beauty was once owned by James Bond/ The gas tank has a few bullet holes in it/ And the ejector seat’s gone, but otherwise it’s mint!'" Hurl is also a good and resourceful guitarist, shining on slide (both acoustic and electric), but also on finger-picked guitar, with even a lap steel guitar turn. His approach is to punctuate a song with a solo, contrary to the modern tendency to write a song around a hot solo. As a singer, he has a burly voice, mixed squarely in the middle of the overall sound instead of front-and-center. His partner in Jumpin’ Juba, Bruce Ward, is a pianist who is totally at ease at very fast tempos, while also excelling at a more stately pace, as heard on the Ma Rainey cover, “Explaining the Blues.” Note that one of the two instrumentals, “Four-Footed,” is conceived as a boogie-woogie duel, with Ward playing both parts; it is a little uneven but still downright impressive. Ward also takes a couple of turns on harmonica (and drew the cover art). As a whole, Bumpity Bump gives a good, rounded tour of good-times blues, with a couple of slower, sadder tracks thrown in for good measure. The musicians are versatile, and the presence of such a good pianist as Ward (and mixed quite high, too) gives Jumpin’ Juba an added oomph, an element that makes the band readily stand apart from the crowd. A very strong independent release, to be found at

More grassroots talent? Here’s Exhibit B: guitarist Patrick LeBlanc, using the nom de scene Pat The White, is viewed as the most promising blues talent in the province of Quebec. His second CD (the first with any kind of distribution), self-titled, has just been released by Les Disques Bros ( It features plenty of muscular modern electric blues played by LeBlanc’s quartet, with heavy, pulsing bass, busy drums and plenty of guitar solos. Pat The White is a good singer with a growl in his voice and a slight francophone accent. His lyrics (or those of his collaborators) don’t rise much above the standard issue, many solos are a little too long, and the album suffers from too little tonal variety, but on this quasi-debut Pat The White gets to show all the promise he’s shown on various stages around Eastern Canada in the last few years. He deserves points for song selection (there’s an interesting cover of Tom Waits’ “Jesus Gonna Be Here”), and the whole band shines on “Risk,” an original instrumental track that feels a little jazzier. Not a bad effort – in fact, if blues-rock is your main field of interest, you should do well to check these youngsters out.

While we’re on the subject of local Canadian talent, you’ll find plenty of that on Storman Norman’s Sunday Blues Live at The Yale, Volume Two, a 13-artist live compilation recorded in the last two years at The Yale Hotel, a Vancouver venue that features blues prominently in its programming. The 13 tracks on this album were recorded for broadcast on Storman Norman’s Sunday Blues, a Vancouver radio program that has been on the air for more than 10 years, on ROCK 101.1 FM at 9 pm Sundays. Aside from Jody Williams, performing his classic “Lucky Lou” with the Paris Slim Band (led by French expat Frank Goldwasser), all the featured artists are Canadian. Some are better known than others, such as David Gogo, Tim Williams, Kenny “Blues Boss” Wayne and the Powder Blues band; the rest are not really known outside of the Vancouver area. Still, except for the first quarter of the disk, which drags a little, the music is excellent, lively, going from acoustic blues to electric blues-rock to Chicago blues to West Coast blues and R&B, with even a Little Feat cover and a James Brown workout thrown in. Busiest man seems to be saxophonist Steve Hilliam, who is featured on five tracks. The revelation, in my case, was pianist Willie MacCalder, who gets to sing the Amos Milburn song “1, 2, 3 Everybody” in a trio format, in addition to being an accompanist on three more tracks. James Rogers, a local guitarist unrelated to the great Chicago bluesman Jimmy Rogers, is also worth checking out (he sings an original song, “Wanna Go Home”). The better-known names are all very good, with Kenny “Blues Boss” Wayne and the Powder Blues band giving blazing, irresistible performances. The booklet info is incomplete (recording dates and musicians’ names are sometimes missing), but the disk is for a good cause (proceeds go to two charities). You’ll find more info at and at

There are no unknown artists on Live at the W.C. Handy Blues Awards, Volume 1 (Tone-Cool Records); the 10 tracks to be found here were recorded at the Handy Awards party in Memphis, between 1996 and 2001, and almost all of them have won various trophies at this ceremony over the years. While Joe Louis Walker (performing solo acoustic), Luther Allison and Bobby Rush are particularly excellent, the same can’t be said of Susan Tedeschi, whose “Just Won’t Burn” has never seemed more deserving of its title. Similarly, Rufus Thomas doing “Walking the Dog” (with guest Bonnie Raitt) makes for fun, but far from transcending music. (And Rod Piazza smokes through “Low Down Dog,” but sings off-mike…). Still, with none of these performances ever released previously (other artists featured are Bernard Allison with Deborah Coleman, Taj Mahal, Paul Rishell and Annie Raines, and Bonnie Raitt), this disk provides an excellent opportunity to sample the cream of modern blues artists playing for their peers, and is close to the best introduction to live blues music you can find for neophytes or new converts. Plus, the mere mention of “Volume 1” is enough to make everyone salivate: with all the great performers that played at these ceremonies over the years, imagine how many great tracks must still lay in the vaults…

Fans of rockin’ roadhouse blues know Omar & The Howlers, who for 20 years have steadily provided the kind of rough and beer-soaked music that ZZ Top was once famous for. Omar’s latest, Boogie Man, has just come out on Ruf Records, and it’s a beauty. (If “Beauty” is a word that can be used in conjunction with such honky-boogie-rock.) Heeding his critics who keep focusing on his empty, repetitive lyrics, Omar (or Kent Dykes, in real life) called on his pals from the Texas scene to help him out on this outing. Among his co-authors, you’ll find such well-known artists (mostly on the country scene) as Alejandro Escovedo, Ray Wylie Hubbard, Darden Smith and Stephen Bruton, while guest musicians include Tommy Shannon and Chris Layton, Jon Dee Graham, Terry Bozzio and Chris Duarte. It’s not really blues, it ain’t country either, but blues and country styling informs every one of these tracks, with amazingly greasy rhythm guitar parts and riffs galore. Add to the mix Omar’s voice, a mix of Howlin’ Wolf’s gravelly sound and deep Texan intonation and accent, and you have a winning formula. This is the ultimate roadhouse music, the CD to put the drunkenness in your earphones, music to drive to the end of the world to. Even if, towards the end of the disk, the routine has lost some of its initial power. Check out or

A quick note to deep soul fans: with the March issue of the British magazine Mojo, you get a 15-track compilation titled Raw Soul, not to be sold separately, which features obscure artists such as Bobby Angelle, Felice Taylor, Little Anne, Betty Bibbs and Mary Love, as well as luminaries such as Otis Redding, Ray Charles, The Isley Brothers, Wilson Pickett and Solomon Burke. Enjoy.

--- Benoît Brière

Bonnie Raitt, Steve Earle, R.E.M.'s Mike Mills, Los Lobos, Widespread Panic, Yo La Tengo, Spongebob and more pay tribute to NRBQ on a new compilation release. The Q People is the debut release of new Massachusetts indie label, Spirithouse Records, and marks NRBQ's 35th Anniversary. Penn Jillette wrote the liner notes to the project that Spirithouse founders' Danny Bernini and Paul McNamara stipulated must be comprised of only be true NRBQ fans. Qualifying band Los Lobos stated: "In my version of a perfect musical universe, NRBQ would be as big as The Beatles," and R.E.M.'s Mike Mills said, "I would describe them as the perfect amalgamation of sound."

The new DVD from Walter Trout is the visual side of the CD Relentless (Ruf Records / MVD), the latest live album from this blues guitarist that, with his band, The Radicals, looms ever larger over the contemporary blues scene. The set is book ended with two covers that exhibits the truly relentless blues playing fans can't get enough off from Trout: "Dust My Broom" and "Serve Me Right to Suffer." However, the point of the 2003 recording in Amsterdam at Paradiso was to showcase the new originals. Many of these are very personal, intimate songs that Trou communicates well. However, in baring himself, he dispenses with a lot of the powerfully stated blues guitar. This can be said of "I'm Tired," "Cry if you Want To," and the ode to a departed friend, "Work No More." However, there are several good, solid blues numbers new from Trout and the fun, lively jab at Internet dating, "Chatroom Girl."

Patriarchal funk-rock drummer Buddy Miles went from Wilson Pickett to The Electric Flag, to the unfortunately brief Band of Gypsies with Jimi Hendrix, to less successful projects, to prison, and from there to be the voice of cartoon raisins. Miles is now back on track doing the progressive funk-rock he is made for, as exemplified on Hell and Back (Innerhythmic). This album patiently flows from song to song, delivering electric rock-fueled ballad soul. This version of the Express features Nicky Skopelitis (Material, Elliot Sharp), frequent collaborator Kevon Smith on guitars and a four-man horn section. Much of the material is familiar: "Born Under a Bad Sign" and "All Along the Watchtower" are here. Miles also includes his own monumental "Them Changes," which is present on the Band of Gypsies album. This album still seems far-seeing and progressive, though it was originally released on Rykodisc on 1994.

Get Inside (Favored Nations) is Johnny A's second release, and the instrumental guitar album has many highlights, including the country soul rendition of "Poor Side of Town" (Johnny Rivers). Johnny A spent much time in Peter Wolf's solo band, but this music is more sophisticated and less ostentatious than that association would suggest. Much of the music has a sunny, effortless, breezy joy, like the swinging "Sing Singin'." In this way, the album straddles rock and jazz, drawing on the genres for a fine mix of muscle and agility like an artful pugilist making sweet art out of a wicked punch. All of this is blended together with a common theme of blues that will keep record store employees guessing into what section to put this disc.

--- Thomas Schulte

Juneteenth is a Brooklyn-based blues band that you may not be familiar with, but that may change soon. Their debut disc, self-titled and self-released, is an appealing mix of styles, with a taste of blues, roots rock, and even some alternative rock in their sound. The band consists of Puge Ruhe (singer/songwriter/guitar), Jamal Rhue (lead guitar), Matt Murphy (drums), John O’Reilly (bass), and Darryl Baker (percussion). Though somewhat short at just under 35 minutes, it’s a pretty exciting disc, with some great instrumental work including some solid acoustic and electric guitar and a pretty snazzy rhythm section, along with some offbeat lyrics and vocals. In other words, this ain’t your daddy’s blues disc. Highlights include the funky opening track, “After Work,” “TV Screens & Magazines,” which sounds like a ’60s outtake with its backup vocals and handclaps, and the sultry “Dirty Sweet,” which I could easily see on a future Buddy Guy album. The next-to-last track (the final track is an unlisted instrumental and a good one) is a definite keeper, a world-weary blues ballad, titled “Well Run Dry.” The production (also by the band) gives the disc a warm, intimate sound, like you’re in the room with the band while they’re kicking things around. While it may not be what you would find on your basic Elmore James disc, it is the blues nonetheless, featuring first-rate musicianship and some impressive songs, all with a modern twist that will probably appeal to a wider audience. Go to the band’s website,, for more information about the band and for ordering information.

The argument of who is the best blues guitarist would go on for days, months, even years among blues fans. There are a lot of worthy candidates out there and it would even be difficult for most fans to trim their list to a Top Ten. While his name may only be familiar to all fans, I would submit Mel Brown as a definite member of the Top Ten. Brown has played with just about everybody, including Sonny Boy Williamson II, Johnny Otis, Etta James, Nancy Wilson, Lionel Hampton, Lou Rawls, T-Bone Walker, Albert Collins, B. B. King, Jimmy Witherspoon, and even country music’s The Outlaws, but he is probably best remembered by blues fans for his 12-year off and on stint with Bobby Bland in the '70s. Other than a handful of albums for Bluesway in the '60s and a largely instrumental album with the Silent Partners for Antones, Brown had been away from the studio for over a decade, living in Canada and blowing audiences away, while fronting his band, the Homewreckers. In 1999, he was coaxed back into the studio by Electro-Fi Records’ Sandra B. Tooze and Andrew Galloway to record Neck Bones and Caviar, and a welcome return it was. Brown’s guitar playing combines the best of the blues with some of the jazziest licks you’ll ever hear on a blues disc. There’s plenty of guitar to be heard here as Galloway and Tooze, who produced the disc, give Brown plenty of room to stretch out. While at first listen, the arrangements may be too sparse, too uncluttered, Brown’s tasty leads make you glad there’s nothing else to distract from them. In addition, Brown sings on 10 of the 12 tracks, unprecedented for him, and while he won’t make you forget Lou Rawls by any means, he does an excellent job with the material, never overreaching. The songs range from hearty covers of Muddy Waters (“Woman Wanted”), Joe Liggins (“I Ain’t Drunk”), Z.Z. Hill (“You’re The One”), St. Louis Jimmy (“Goin’ Down Slow”), Ray Charles (“I Believe To My Soul”) and John Lee Hooker (“I’m In The Mood”) to a couple of Brown compositions and a pair of instrumentals that highlight the real star of the album --- Mel Brown’s guitar. If you missed this one the first time around, you need to pick it up. You’ll want to add Mel Brown to your Top Ten list.

--- Graham Clarke

When the greats of deep soul music are discussed it is usually the male vocalists that come up, James Carr, O.V. Wright and Spencer Wiggins always head the discussion. But who heads the discussion when female vocalists comes up? Of course there is always Aretha during her early Atlantic years, but the underground favorite has always been Candi Staton. Here too it would be her early recordings that are revered by record collectors. Staton cut three full LPs for Rick Hall's Fame Records in Muscle Shoals and each one is a classic. The irony is that Hall who owns the U.S. rights to these recordings, refused to reissue them for whatever his reason, so once again here comes merry old England to the rescue by issuing The Fame Sides (EMI). I guess they really are our greatest ally, musically and otherwise. The original LPs were distributed by Capitol Records who are now EMI, so in the U.K. they have the rights to this important music. Do not confuse these Candi Staton recordings with the ones that appeared on Warner Brothers in the late '70s. By that time disco music had taken over and Staton was no longer being produced by Hall or Fame Records. She did manage a few hits for Warner Brothers and that music has been available over the years. If this is the only way you know her music, then do yourself a great favor and pick up a copy of this new CD. Never before is the connection between early Southern soul music and country music more apparent than after hearing Staton's version of the Tammy Wynette classic "Stand By Your Man." Staton's truly soulful recording is so moving that Wynette's legendary country lament pales by comparison. Such great songs such as "I'd Rather Be An Old Man's Sweetheart (Than A Young Man's Fool)" and the incomparable "Mr. & Mrs. Untrue," with its classic lines ...."I keep my shades on Johnny, the hotel is kind of crowded tonight. Take the elevator up and soon I'll follow you, but first sign us in as Mr. & Mrs. Untrue." The intensity of Staton's version of "In The Ghetto" rivals even Solomon Burke's and Elvis Presley's heralded recordings. Wait until you hear Candi's version of "That's How Strong My Love Is" and the opening track on this 26 song collection, "I'm Just A Prisoner (Of Your Good Lovin' )," both classics in their own right. You will fall in love with Candi Staton. Another release that will be on many "best of the year" lists and one that is right at the top of mine early in 2004. What a treat!!

--- Alan Shutro

Marion JamesAs the saying goes, "you cannot judge a book by it's cover." I'm assuming this goes for the covers of CD's as well as the covers of books. On the other hand, there is another saying which states that "every picture tells a story." Just take one look at the picture of Marion James on the cover of her new CD, Essence, and tell me you aren't thinking blues. Aha! You can't. From the moment I first looked at this CD my first impression told me it reeked of blues and indeed it does. On Essence, James took 17 very impressive and talented musicians into the studio with her and it paid off. They allow her to shine in a variety of musical settings, some of which are quite jazzy. These fine musicians are: Jack Pearson and Casey Lutton on guitar; Todd Ellsworth, Bob Babbitt and Roger Spencer (acoustic) on bass, Chucki Burke, Chris Brown and Steve Johnson on drums, Reese Wynans, Dickie Thompson and Ronnie Godfrey on organ; Beegie Adair and Ronnie Godfrey on piano; Denis Solee and Dennis Taylor on sax, George Tidwell and Steve Herrman on trumpet, and Barry Green on trombone. Individually picking favorite cuts off of this CD is frustrating to say the least. With about a 50-50 mix of originals and covers, they are all done very well. James' rendition of Lattimore's "Let's Straighten It Out" is extraordinary. I particularly liked the change from down home blues, on cuts such as "Please Don't Waste My Time," "You're History Baby," and "Give Me Love," to the jazzy blues style on "Until The Real Thing Comes Along," "Be Anything," and "I Want To Be Loved (But By Only You)." Although not listed with Ruth Brown, Etta James and Billie Holiday as her influences, this listener clearly also hears Dinah and Ella. Despite having grown up in a musical family in Nashville and having a top ten hit in the early fifties, James has not exactly been setting the world on fire with her music. It even took three years to get this CD produced and released. However, if the quality of music Marion James put into Essence can be maintained and she can deliver a product like this every year or so, Ms.James will certainly be a force to be reckoned with in the world of female blues artists.

This review has been contributed by Peter "Blewzzman" Lauro, a Contributing Writer for BIG CITY BLUES MAGAZINE and the Blues Editor at -- where you can read many more CD and live show reviews, view blues photographs and find an abundance of blues material. He can be reached at

--- Peter "Blewzzman" Lauro


Special DVD Review section

Digital Video Discs (DVDs), alternately known as Digital Versatile Discs, have only been around since about 1997. Essentially, they’re large capacity CDs that hold and transfer static visual images, movies and concerts, and do so with audio capability that surpasses most CD players. The blues catalog available on DVD grows daily. Here, in no particular order, are a few new and notable worth a look.

By Mark E. Gallo


Blues Story
Shout! Factory
120 minutes

Blues Story“The blues was born at the turn of the century in the Mississippi Delta and other regions of the South. It would become the cornerstone of all popular American music. This is its story as told by the artists who lived it.” These words emblazoned across the screen begin one of the most brilliantly conceived and executed films released on the blues, particularly in commemoration of this congressionally proclaimed Year of the Blues. Produced and directed by Jay Levey, executive produced by Levey and Richard Foos (the man who founded Rhino Records as well as Shout!), with Edward Marritz directing photography and Mark Mandler serving as the sound engineer, the film also counts Jim O’Neal (the founder of Living Blues magazine and owner of Rooster Blues) as executive consultant and associate producer. Not a bad production crew.

The folks at Shout! and Imaginary Entertainment, have spliced a series of new interviews done specifically for the project with live performances and rare footage into a superb montage that offers a riveting overview of the roots of the blues. There is no voice-over narrative explaining the music’s history or implications. This is strictly the artists telling it like it was. Hubert Sumlin, guitarist with Howlin’ Wolf for many years, opens with a story about his mother telling him that if he wanted to do church music, he should do church music. If he wanted to “go the other way,” he should. His gleeful reply was, “Yes, ma’m, I’m going the other way.” Not all the stories included here are as upbeat, but all are wholly fascinating. Among those sharing stories and observations are Willie Foster, Koko Taylor, R.L. Burnside, Othar Turner, Philadelphia Jerry Ricks, John Jackson, B.B. King, Honeyboy Edwards, Little Milton, Charles Brown, Lowell Fulson, Henry Townsend, Pinetop Perkins, Rufus Thomas, Gatemouth Moore, Robert Lockwood, Snooky Pryor, Ruth Brown, Willie King, Gatemouth Brown, Bobby Blue Bland, and Buddy Guy. Magic Slim & The Teardrops offer their observations on the state of the blues with a rip-it-up performance.

Broken into sections headed Origins, Early Artists, Down in the Delta, King Biscuit Time, Juke, St. Louis-Texas-and Jump Blues, Memphis, Chicago, Blues Revival and the Birth of Rock and a final unlabeled section, the visual quality of the film is equal to the music it celebrates. The stories that B.B., Koko, Honeyboy and Little Milton tell about sharecropping, slavery and plantation life are chilling. Othar Turner demonstrates how to make a fife. R.L. Burnside speaks of his early exposure to and fascination with Mississippi Fred McDowell and sings for the camera. Charles Brown, Lowell Fulson and John Jackson speak of the importance of the early recordings of Blind Lemon Jefferson, Blind Blake and Charlie Patton. There is Bessie Smith and Sonny Boy Williamson #2 (Rice Miller) film footage. Here you’ll find Gatemouth Moore praising Ma Rainey, and Henry Townsend and Koko Taylor singing Memphis Minnie’s praises. Snooky Pryor speaks of the original Sonny Boy Williamson leaving Chicago to go to Helena, Arkansas to have Rice Miller pulled off the air for using his name. Robert Jr. Lockwood’s stories of Robert Johnson and Rice Miller are fascinating, and Honeyboy’s playing of “Crossroads Blues” on his big red guitar is priceless. Any Muddy Waters performance is a treat. “Can’t Loose What You Never Had,” with James Cotton on harp, is great. Snippets of John Lee Hooker, Howlin’ Wolf and Roosevelt Sykes serve to titillate. If only there were more …

There are many omissions. You’ll hear nothing of Reverend Gary Davis, Otis Rush, Otis Spann, Paul Butterfield, Magic Sam or other important artists, but this documentary doesn’t claim to be Blues A-Z, just a look at where it came from. In that respect, it does an exemplary job.


The Life & Music of Robert Johnson: Can’t You Hear The Wind Howl?
Shout! Factory
76 minutes
*** ½

The influence of Robert Johnson half a century after his death is something to ponder. Here is a man who died at the age of 27 years, after having recorded a mere 29 extraordinarily influential songs. In this account of his life, Keb’ Mo’ is cast in a non-speaking role. In fact, he’s pretty non-visible, as well. It is his shadow figure, shot in black and white and seen in motion and playing guitar, that captivates. With actor Danny Glover serving as narrator, the life of Johnson, such as is known, begins to unfold. This 1997 Peter Meyer film combines theatrics with interviews of those who knew Johnson well (Johnny Shines, Robert Jr. Lockwood, Honeyboy Edwards, Robert Townsend and childhood friends) and those who claimed inspiration from the iconoclastic bluesman (Robert Cray, Keith Richards and Eric Clapton in less extensive interviews). Johnny Shines calls Johnson a genius who was ahead of his time and relates stories of traveling throughout the country and catching trains from city to city just because trains were there. The destination rarely mattered. He tells a wonderful story of walking down Highway 61 with Johnson, broke and hungry, their guitars having just burnt in a fire, when Johnson started blowing harp. Shines said up to that point he had no idea that Robert Johnson played harmonica. Before long, the two of them began to play for a small group that would grow to a huge audience whose cars blocked the highway. The two took turns playing the harp and singing, and by the time they left, they had earned enough money to buy two brand new guitars.

Danny Glover sets the film up by reminding us that the history that is known of Robert Johnson is musical. Little is known of his personal life, perhaps by design. His name was once Spencer, but he changed it back to Johnson when he discovered his biological father in Mississippi. He was married early and lost his wife and child and childbirth. Glover postulates that this was the real “crossroads” for Johnson, the emotional shock that he kept with him for the rest of his short life. Boyhood friends speak of a musician playing brother named Leroy. The role of Charlie Patton, Willie Brown and Son House is discussed by Glover. The performance footage of Son House is worth the price of the disc in itself. An audio tape of the master discussing Johnson is fascinating, as well. He speaks of Johnson following him and Willie Brown around, then going away for a while. When he came back, he apparently shocked everyone with his talent. This is where the "deal with the devil" folklore rears its head. Shines says, “He never told me that lie.” Robert Townsend and Honeyboy agree that it was a nonsensical story. One theory is that Johnson was taught to play by a man named Ike Zimmerman. Neither Shines, Edwards, Townsend or Johnson’s boyhood friends recognized the name. Glover postulates that Johnson meant to keep this secret. His importance, his genius is attributed by step-son Lockwood and Shines to the fact that “he played the guitar like a piano.” Shines adds, “It’s a sound I’m still looking for.” Johnson’s recording sessions in San Antonio, with Keb’ Mo’ in the role, is dealt with in some depth. Of particular interest are the insights offered by Don Law, Jr., son of the producer of the Robert Johnson recordings. He tells a story of Robert Johnson being arrested the night before the first recording session that produced “Terraplane Blues.”

Honeyboy Edwards traveled for three years with Robert Johnson and he speaks of Johnson’s death from poisoned whiskey in Three Forks, Mississippi in August 1938. He wasn’t with Johnson at the time of his death. Sonny Boy Williamson said that he died in his arms, a questionable claim. The claim that Robert Johnson was one of the most influential of all bluesmen is an easier one to consider. Though it may not offer any new information, the film is fascinating for the interviews, particularly with Shines, to whom the film is dedicated.


The Legends of New Orleans
The Music of Fats Domino
Shout! Factory
90 minutes

Fats Domino’s 2001 headline performance at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival was hailed as something akin to the second coming. Here is a man inextricably associated with New Orleans, as well as with that crossroads of rhythm and blues, jazz, blues and nascent rock and roll. That he was received by those in attendance like royalty is no surprise. The 20 song program is performed straight with nary a step outside the box. The classic book is here: “I’m Walkin’,” “Let The Four Winds Blow,” “My Blue Heaven,” “Blueberry Hill,” “Blue Monday” and “My Girl Josephine” are the crowd pleasers. Surprisingly, there’s no “Ain’t That A Shame,” his first rock and roll hit, but I was pleased to hear “I’m Gonna Be A Wheel Someday,” always my favorite Fats tune. Hearing him reprise his first recording ever, 1949’s “The Fat Man,” is a treat, too. The much more svelte Domino is backed by a 12-piece that includes long time associate Herbert Hardesty. Bonus features are the interviews with Fats, Allen Toissaint, Cosimo Matassa and journalist Mikal Gilmore, along with a photo section and discography. There may not be any musical surprises, as these are all played pretty close to the original charts, but I’ll bet it was a major blast to be on hand for this legendary musician’s hometown blow out. Also available on CD, Fats Domino fans don’t want to miss this. Those wondering what all the excitement has been about for the past half century need look no further.


Jimi Hendrix
Jimi Plays Berkeley
Experience Hendrix/MCA
Documentary 49 minutes
Audio Bonus 67 minutes

One of the classic rock and roll films ever shot, Hendrix, joined here by drummer Mitch Mitchell and bassist Billy Cox, was at the peak of his creativity. Shot May 30, 1970 at the Berkeley Community Theatre, he would be dead within four months. Opening with the limo ride to the show, the film includes the stage set-up and sound check, something Hendrix typically did not do. A confrontation between a pool hall patron and a group of young people demonstrating against the $3.50 charge to see the movie Woodstock is filmed outside the theatre. The film takes the viewer back inside for more sound check before fading up to Hendrix center-stage and burning up “Johnny B. Goode.” The powerful “Hear My Train A-Comin’” followed and was followed in turn by “Voodoo Child (Slight Return).” The performance of “Star Spangled Banner” is stunning. “Purple Haze,” “I Don’t Live Today,” "Hey Baby (New Rising Sun),” and "Lover Man” follow in sweat drenched order. The songs are as riveting, as mind-blowing now as they were 33 years ago. None so much, however, as the version of "Machine Gun," which is starkly contrasted with film footage of the Berkeley student uprisings. Hendrix in Berekley is a revalation. Hendrix sounds as contemporary as he does historically set in stone. One of a very small handful of the most important musicians to emerge since the advent of recording, this proves that he was a dynamic live player, as well.


Joni Mitchell
Shadows and Light
75 minutes

This Joni Mitchell produced film of a 1979 Santa Barbara County Bowl concert was released on video in 1980, though it’s been out of print forever. In some respects there’s nothing new visually, though the audio quality is extraordinary. The band was unquestionably her best: Pat Metheny, Jaco Pastorius, Michael Brecker, Lyle Mays, and Don Alias. During the Weather Report era, Joni Mitchell had a band that couldn’t be touched by any but Weather Report. Drawn principally from the Hejira and Hissing of Summer Lawns songbooks with a couple numbers from Mingus and Court & Spark added, this sometimes seems bent on representing Joni Mitchell the artist, not just the musician. The introductory glimpse of clips from James Dean’s “Rebel Without a Cause” and Frankie Lymon & The Teenagers singing “I’m Not A Juvenile Delinquent” are offered in some sort of vague juxtaposition to the concert. The rationale is foggy at best. The music, however, is crystal clear and frequently transcendent, most particularly Joni Mitchell’s vocals. On “Edith & The King Pin,” the then 36-year-old Mitchell’s voice was at it’s most crystalline. This was her prime. On “Coyote,” a song accompanied by a film of a coyote chasing some sort of rodent in the snow, the band meshes brilliantly. The audience is treated to a splendid “Free Man In Paris” before she takes it ever so slightly outside with “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat.” Her phrasing here is flawless and Pastorius and Mays challenge her. Joni showed some courage in letting Pastorius take a solo spot with his playing of “Third Stone From The Sun,” on which he demonstrates his command of the electric bass such that he was often called the Jimi Hendrix of the bass. Here are delays, reverb and feedback unlike any electric bass player before and few since. For stark contrast, Mitchell returns to the stage to sing “Dry Cleaner From Des Moines,” ala “Twisted,” with just Alias on accompanying drums before Pastorius and Brecker enter and engage in an extraordinary dialogue. This is a bit overburdened with Las Vegas film footage that is in the way. On “Amelia,” the overuse of visuals continues with historic footage of the aviator. Joni sings this largely solo with her guitar mixed too high. Metheny and Mays join in to rescue her. “Hejira” is offered as a video rather than performance piece and segues to “Black Crow.” She offers a wonderful version of “Furry Sings the Blues,” her tribute to Furry Lewis before breaking into another crowd pleaser in the form of “Raised on Robbery.” Lyle Mays plays a rockin’ piano and Metheny and Pastorius look awkward with the tune. Not the right band for the song. The final two numbers feature the Persuasions. On “Why Do Fools Fall In Love?,” another Frankie Lymon & The Teenagers vehicle, they back Joni’s lead vocal. It’s a fun number that the crowd seemed to enjoy. The final take on the title piece is more somber and is one that the musicians seemed to enjoy. Joni Mitchell is one of the most important musicians of the past 35 years, or so. This is a superb document of one of the most important segments of a remarkable career.


Various Artists
Rhythm, Love & Soul
Shout! Factory
100 minutes
*** ½

Rhythm, Love & SoulCompanion to the superb CD box set released earlier this year (though with some different song selections and performers) and utilized as a PBS fundraiser nationwide, this is chock full of some of the great names in soul. Recorded live on November 26, 2002 at The Benedum Center for the Performing Arts in Pittsburgh, the set opens with Aretha Franklin -- so as to be clear that this ain’t no foolin’ around. The Queen of Soul has the audience swinging and swaying and commands “Respect” in short order with her signature song. She’s joined by Lou Rawls for a duet on the Etta James classic “At Last.” Rawls proves he’s still got the chops when he launches into “You’ll Never Find Another Love Like Mine.” Aretha comes back to introduce fellow Detroiter and Temptation survivor Dennis Edwards. (Only Otis Williams is alive from the original Tempts, but he is no longer active musically. Edwards came from the Contours to the Temptations as David Ruffin’s replacement). He and the new version of the Temptations aren’t as good as the originals – who is? – but they’re still the epitome of excitement. I got a few chills and the audience went completely crazy for their versions of “Can’t Get Next To You” and “Papa Was A Rolling Stone,” which Edwards dedicates to the original Temptations. This was a tough act to follow, but Edward Starr did a fine job with his 1969 hit “25 Miles.” He’s followed by Barbara Mason (“Yes, I’m Ready”), Carl Carlton (“Everlasting Love”), the Three Degrees (“When Will I See You Again”) and the still hip Billy Paul (“Me & Mrs. Jones”), who looked the same and may have sounded better than he did 25 years ago. Freda Payne still looked good and sounded convincing with her “Band of Gold.” The Manhattans (“Kiss and Say Goodbye”) and Blue Magic (“Side Show”) were well received. Peaches and Herb, with yet another new Peaches, offered “Reunited,” before the program took a turn into the disco era. Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive” still packs a punch and Thelma Houston’s version of “Don’t Leave Me This Way” is still a powerhouse tune. Aretha returns for “Freeway of Love,” pretty much her last hit of any substance, and Mary Wilson, who had been sharing emcee duties with Lou Rawls and Aretha, closes it with “Some Day We’ll Be Together,” an ironic choice. There are references to PBS throughout, as this was staged specifically as a fund-raiser. I’ll bet it worked big time. If you’re a fan of this music, as I am, you’ll find many goose-bump moments. As a bonus, there are interviews with Dennis Edwards, Gloria Gaynor, Edwin Starr,
Barbara Mason and Blue Magic with famed DJ Cousin Bruce Morrow.


The Marsalis Family: A Jazz Celebration
Marsalis Music/Rounder
80 minutes

The rich musical history of New Orleans cannot be denied. The city that gave us the Neville Brothers, Professor Longhair, Dr. John, Johnny Adams, the Wild Tchoupitoulis and Louis Armstrong is not a city easily impressed. Out of this backdrop Ellis Marsalis raised one of the most musical families in the world. There are those who will tell you that the Marsalis family “owns” New Orleans. If they were politicians, they might be called a dynasty. Oddly enough, they don’t all get together often. On the occasion of pianist and elder Ellis Marsalis’ retirement from the faculty of the University of New Orleans, in August 2001, this extraordinarily talented family convened and wowed a full house of appreciative fans.

Opening with a stark drum and piano duet between Ellis and son Jason Marsalis, their version of “The Surrey With the Fringe on Top” is so hypnotic that the entry of bassist Roland Guerin is almost unnoticed. “After,” a beautiful, introspective work from the same trio, is the prettiest piece on the program. “Sultry Serenade” adds the powerful and proficient Delfeayo Marsalis on trombone, adding a lilting bounce to the proceedings. For the fourth song of the night, the level of anticipation is noticeably appreciated with the arrival to the stage of trumpeter Wynton and saxophonist Branford Marsalis. Wynton tells the audience that he’s always being asked how he and Branford are getting along these days, alluding to a public disagreement of a decade ago that haunts them to this day. He always responds with, “How are you and your brother getting along?” and says he and Branford are getting along just fine. He then, to everyone’s delight, introduces Branford’s “Cain and Abel.” Both the elder Marsalis boys spent time with Art Blakey and there is more than a taste of that energy in this bop-based number that occasionally pushes the envelope. It doesn’t hurt that the bass solo is a jaw-dropper. One of Ellis Marsalis’ most famous students was Harry Connick, Jr. After lampooning both Ellis and Wynton, the crooner reminds, in his duet with his teacher, that he is a first-rate pianist, too. Connick brings on his own band for a vocal version of “Saint James Infirmary,” then returns to the piano for a sizzling “Limehouse Blues.” The family assembles again with some great fanfare for versions of “Swingin’ At The Haven,” and turns in a hot, hot version of Armstrong’s “Struttin’ With Some Barbecue.” Following a spirited ovation, Ellis returns to center stage and takes it out solo on the appropriately entitled “The Party’s Over.” Whether you call yourself a jazz fan or not, this is exciting music.


Albert Collins
The Iceman at Mount Fuji
90 minutes

This is a straight ahead concert video. No narration – just 90 minutes of jaw-dropping, high energy music, as only the Master of the Telecaster could deliver it. Albert Collins fans who missed seeing him live will eat this up. In fact, those of us who were lucky enough to see him do his magic live will do the same. The iconic guitarist is filmed performing for two audiences at the 1992 Mt. Fuji Jazz Festival in nearly identical performances. From the brief walk on and set up just in front of the explosion that is “Iceman,” it’s apparent that this is going to be a great show. Following a solid take on “Put The Shoe On The Other Foot,” Collins and band just detonate the stage with “The Light’s On But No One’s Home.” Tenor saxophonist John Smith, a veteran of the White Trash Horns, cooks and Mr. Collins works up a sweat reaching for those lines that few but he could find.

More musical magic is displayed on the funky “If You Love Me Like You Say,” and on “Same Old Thing,” the maestro, you’ll forgive the cliché, just shreds. Regular bassist Johnny B. Gayden was mysteriously absent for the daytime performance, but funky plucked bass lines are supplied by the very impressive James Genus, borrowed from fellow festival performers the Brecker Brothers. Greezy organ lines come courtesy of Bobby Alexis, a long time vet of the Icebreakers. Steve Howard’s trumpet sizzles and young guitarist Pete Thoennes does a fine job trading licks with the professor.

For the following night’s performance, Gayden was back in the lineup. The energy level was conspicuously higher, both on and off stage. Gayden and drummer Marty Binder meshed mightily. Albert’s licks were even more dangerous than those impressively displayed the previous afternoon. Maybe performers and audiences are just more naturally nocturnal. Albert Collins would be dead a year later from lung cancer. He lives forever, though, through the magic of DVD and this amazing set of performances. As a bonus, the disc also features a 59 page biographical sketch from Bill Dahl.


Deep Blues
Shout! Factory
90 minutes

Deep BluesOf the slew of blues films thus far released on the DVD format, this is hands down the most fascinating. Originally filmed in 1990, this Robert Mugge film was reportedly conceived by Dave Stewart of Eurythmics fame and is narrated on camera by blues scholar Robert Palmer, whose book of the same title is one of the classic tomes of the genre. The tone is set by the wide angle sweep of the Mississippi River that opens the film. Interviews and performances of some of the most riveting players in the region is interspersed with local color. The combination is mesmerizing. Stewart and Palmer visit a potions/mojo/record store in Memphis before sitting down to hear famed Memphis pianist Booker T. Laury, who died in 1995, lay down some of his musical mojo. Mugge takes his crew to R.L. Burnside’s front porch to hear his treatment of “Jumper On The Line.” Sitting astride a stool on his modest front porch, the guitarist/vocalist is joined by Stewart on impressive acoustic guitar. Burnside encourages the Brit in his playing here. Though the concept behind the film was, at least in part, Dave Stewart paying tribute to the blues, he bids adieu to the audience at this juncture. We are next introduced to the amazing Jessie Mae Hemphill in two separate personas. The first Jessie Mae plays bass drum with a three piece fife and drums band. Robert Palmer’s brief interview with Ms. Hemphill reveals that her family can trace fife and drum music back five or six generations. The second, more familiar, Jessie Mae, is seen at Junior Kimbrough’s juke playing mesmerizing guitar on “You Can’t Talk About Me.” The visuals here are thoroughly captivating. It gives one pause, too, to consider that Kimbrough and Palmer have both since died and Jessie Mae Hemphill has suffered a stroke. This certainly drives home the importance of documentaries such as this. The music and the music makers are captured for eternity. Junior Kimbrough is filmed singing “Junior, I Love You.” Like Ms. Hemphill’s, his is a hypnotic and droning guitar style. This was recorded prior to his first full album and witnesses a deeply soulful musician at his prime. Roosevelt ‘Booba’ Barnes is interviewed at his Playboy Club, in Greenville, MS and performs a pair of numbers that point to his excellent guitar work and fine vocals. We’re introduced to Wade Walton, proprietor of Wade’s Barber Shop. In addition to cutting the hair of Sonny Boy Williamson, Ike Turner and Howling Wolf, Walton had a brief career as a blues man. Over at Smitty’s Red Top Lounge, Big Jack Johnson performs “Catfish Blues” and “Daddy, When Is Momma Comin’ Home.” This was years before the Oilman’s reputation grew internationally. The man we’re introduced to here is both laid back – particularly in the radio interview in the segment -- and musically captivating. As the journey nears its end the viewer is introduced to Bud Spires and Jack Owens in Betonia, MS. The two share a front porch for their performances of “The Devil” and “Hard Time Killing Floor Blues,” on which Owens displays a similar vocal quality to the song’s author, Skip James. Lonnie Pitchford’s work on the one-string diddley bow is mesmerizing, as is his guitar and vocal work on Robert Johnson’s “If I Had Possession Over Judgement Day” and “Come On In My Kitchen,” with vocals eerily close to the original. This is one of the great blues films. The audio is equal to the superb video and the performances and stories are priceless. Bonus features include 30 minutes of outtakes and 45 minutes of additional audio tracks.

--- Mark E. Gallo

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