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March 2020

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Order these featured CDs today:

Liz Mandeville

Roomful of Blues

Harper and Midwest Kind

Altered Five Blues Band

Moonshine Society

Polly O'Keary

Professor Louie and the Crowmatix

Vaneese Thomas

Ronnie Earl and the Broadcasters

Annika Chambers

Grainne Duffy



Liz Mandeville
Liz Mandeville
has been on the Chicago blues scene for several decades, but her recording career got derailed four years ago when the singer / guitarist was seriously injured in an auto accident. The good news is that Mandeville is back and just as strong as ever as heard on her latest album, Playing With Fire (Blue Kitty Music). This is guitar-driven blues but with many surprises occurring on the five different sessions, featuring a host of visiting artists from around the world. Playing With Fire is broken into the five segments in which each guest artist is given their due.

My preference is the two sessions that make up the second half of the disc, with two cuts featuring Boston blues violinist Ilana Katz Katz followed by four country blues numbers with Dutch guitarist Peter Struijk. But my preference for these two groupings doesn't take away from the quality heard on the other three sessions that included Italian guitarist Dario Lombardo, Mandeville regular band member Minoru Maruyama, and guitarist Philippe Fernandez (aka Big Dez) and harp player Gilles Gabisson, both visiting from France. All songs here were written by Mandeville with the support of her special guests.

I just love the two songs on which Katz Katz appears, especially the old school double-entendre blues, "He Loves My Biscuits," on which Mandeville sings, "...My baby loves my biscuits with the butter running down ..." while Katz Katz plays her fiddle and contributes backing vocals. Katz Katz really shines on her violin on "Just Give Her Chocolate" as Mandeville tells us what women really, really want.

Struijk's name is a new one to me, as it probably is to most of our readers, but trust me when I say that this cat can play a mean guitar and resonator. He really lays down a monster solo on "Poor Robert Johnson," with Dizzy Bolinski coming in on harmonica. Accompanied again by Struijk and Bolinski, Mandeville belts out the blues on "Joliet Town." Johnny Burgin sits in with a really fine guitar solo on the John Lee Hooker-ish boogie number, "Boss Lady," with Mandeville showing more than the usual level of sass in her vocals.

My absolute favorite number is "Hey Babe You Wanna Boogie?," a rollicking, up-tempo old timey blues with slide from Struijk, harmonica from Bolinski, tuba from Steve Hart, and washboard from Mandeville. This song reminded me of what might have been heard nearly a century ago.

Among the other sessions, "Everybody Got Wings" stands out, a jazzy, ethereal number highlighted by tasteful slide guitar from Lombardo and violin from Anne Harris. "Comfort Food Blues" features Maruyama on slide, giving this number more of a back porch feeling with Mandeville singing about the real "vices" in her life. As someone who always wears a pedometer to measure my daily steps, I especially appreciate when Mandeville sings about walking 10 thousand steps a day, but that 500 of those steps are to her local French bakery.

Big Dez acquits himself well on guitar on the upbeat blues, "Keep On Workin'," while Gabisson plays nice harp on "How Many Times (Do You Get to Break My Heart)."

It's good to have another album from Mandeville, four years after the equally outstanding The Stars Motel. Playing With Fire just cements her reputation as one of the Chicago's finest contemporary blues artists.

--- Bill Mitchell

Roomful of BluesRoomful of Blues is a band that's been around forever --- or so it seems. My first memory of Roomful was hearing a club ad on the legendary WHFS radio station from Bethesda, Maryland, in which the announcer quietly said something like, "Open the door, and you're in a roomful of blues," before being hit by a wall of sound taken from their first album. Coincidentally (or maybe not) In A Roomful Of Blues (Alligator Records) is now the name of their 21st album. With a 50-year history and a sterling reputation despite numerous personnel changes, Roomful of Blues is still one of the best ensembles on the blues scene. Hey, they must be doing something right to be able to keep a big band together for that long, with the quality of their sound never dropping.

Now co-led by guitarist Chris Vachon and sax player Rich Lataille, the latter who joined Roomful as a teen way, way back in 1970, the list of significant blues artists who have been members of the band sounds like a "who's who" of the blues world. To name just a few, Duke Robillard, Ronnie Earl, Curtis Salgado Lou Ann Barton, Sugar Ray Norcia, Greg Piccolo and Ron Levy have been part of Roomful of Blues throughout its history.

In addition to Vachon and Lataille, the current roster includes Phil Pemberton (vocals), Chris Anzalone (drums), John Turner (upright bass), Rusty Scott (keyboards, Alek Razdan (sax) and Carl Gerhard (trumpet). Their sound is still as tight and brassy as ever, with this album reminding me of what I first heard from them back in the late '70s.

The title cut is a Vachon composition, a slower, funky urban blues that turns into the guitarist's chance to dominate the room with his tasteful and incendiary playing. Pemberton turns in some of his best work here, with strong and soulful pleading vocals, easily making this cut the highlight of the album.

But wait --- the opening number, "What Can I Do?" a Duke Records hit for Buddy Ace in 1961, is an up-temp jump blues with hot piano playing from Scott and a killer tenor sax solo presumably from Lataille. Pemberton's voice here almost sounds reminiscent of the early Roomful vocals from Robillard. So maybe this song is the best of the album, but then I'd be ignoring the slow ballad "She Quit Me Again," with Anzalone very tastefully using brushes on the drums while we also get nice piano and sax breaks. I could imagine Ray Charles having done this song somewhere during his career.

Another keeper is the Rusty Scott original, "She's Too Much," with a Latin beat and big sound that takes us back to the big dance clubs on the '40s. Pemberton really belts out the jazzy blues here while either Lataille or Razdan comes in with a strong sax solo. The Doc Pomus original, "Too Much Boogie," is a rambunctious jump blues that suits Pemberton's vocals to a T while we also get a good trumpet solo from Gerhard.

In A Roomful Of Blues closes with another very hot up-tempo swing number, "I Can't Wait," written by Razdan who contributes a smokin' sax solo. This song lasts only one minute and 53 seconds, but it sure packs a wallop in that short time period.

I've never heard a Roomful album that I didn't like (and I've got a big chunk of their discography in my collection), but In A Roomful Of Blues ranks right up there among the best from this venerable ensemble.

--- Bill Mitchell

HarperI've never been sure how to categorize the music of Austalian multi-instrumentalist / singer Harper, as his music stretches multiple boundaries. There's blues, but not always the standard 12-bar. He's soulful, too, and his use of the traditional Aboriginal wind instrument didgeridoo adds another unique twist to his sound. In addition to the didgeridoo, Harper also plays harmonica, keyboard and guitar.

Harper is also a fine songwriter, very heavy into social issues, as heard on his latest CD, Rise Up (Access Records), credited to Harper And Midwest Kind. I prefer the songs on which he plays the didgeridoo, perhaps because it adds such a unique sound. The title cut opens the album with both drums and didgeridoo playing before Harper's slide guitar and inspirational vocals take over. He also plays the didgeridoo on "Hateful," but it's his echo-y vocals that add extra impact to the song as he preaches against all of the hatred in the world today, and the equally soulful "World's Insane."

Another very topical number is "Blues I Can't Use," a mid-tempo number on which Harper questions the constant spate of demagogues in our current political environment, saying that we can't just ignore the idiocy. Special guest Paul Nelson contributes very nice slide guitar here. Harper shows off his best harmonica work on "Talk To Me" and the soulful "I Still Got You," using the chromatic harp to good effect.

There aren't many other blues artists quite like Harper, so those looking for something different will want to check out Rise Up.

--- Bill Mitchell

Altered FiveAltered Five Blues Band returns with the aptly-titled Ten Thousand Watts (Blind Pig Records), an electrifying set of rocking soul and blues. The Milwaukee quintet (vocalist Jeff Taylor, guitarist Jeff Schroedl, bassist Mark Solveson, drummer Alan Arber, keyboardist Ray Tevich) re-enlisted Tom Hambridge as producer and returned to Nashville to assemble these 12 original tracks that rank with the band’s best work.

Taylor’s big, powerful voice is in the spotlight from beginning on the energetic opening boogie shuffle, “Right On, Right On,” where the band is ably assisted by harmonica player Steve Cohen. The midtempo “Too Mad To Make Up” is a tale of a lover scorned, and the title track is a muscular blues that creatively revisits a common blues theme ---.the sexual prowess of the blues man. The funky “Mischief Man” is a raucous “don’t do what I do” romp, and “Great Minds Drink Alike” is an entertaining Windy City-styled shuffle.

The slow burning tribute to the band’s genre of choice, “Don’t Rock My Blues,” puts the guitar work of Schroedl on full display, and “Sweet Marie” ventures down to Louisiana for some tasty second line funk. Taylor does some of his best vocalizing on the ballad “Dollars & Demons,” wrenching every drop of emotion possible, and tears through “I Hate To Leave You (With A Six Pack In The Fridge),” one of the more interesting blues break-up songs in recent memory.

“Let Me Do The Wrong Thing” has a swampy, funky vibe as Taylor finds himself losing the battle against temptation, and the swinging “Half of Nothing” sounds a bit like a country tune, both lyrically and with Schroedl’s fretwork. The album closes with Cohen rejoining the band on “Let Me Be Gone,” a feisty blues rocker similar in tone to the opening track.

Great songs, combined with Taylor’s robust vocals, Schroedl’s versatile guitar, and the rhythm section’s impeccable support, add up to another winner for Altered Five Blues Band with Ten Thousand Watts, the band’s best album to date.

--- Graham Clarke

Moonshine SocietySweet Thing, the second release from the D.C.-based band Moonshine Society, won this year’s Best Self-Produced CD at the I.B.C., and it’s pretty easy to hear why it won top honors. Led by the charismatic singer/songwriter Black Betty and powered by Blues Hall of Fame guitarist Joe Poppen, this group is in their tenth year of seamlessly merging the blues with soul, rock, and R&B. Black Betty wrote five of the ten tracks herself, while co-writing one with the band and making the four choice covers her own.

The title track opens the disc, slowly building to a boil with Black Betty’s sultry vocal, Poppen’s stinging guitar work, and guest Jason Ricci on harmonica. The dance number “Shake” has a cool, almost beach vibe with Poppen’s guitar and yakky sax from Ron Holloway, and Ruth Brown’s “Mama, He Treats Your Daughter Mean” takes on a terrific, groovy second-line rhythm approach, while the lush soul ballad “Come On Home” is a tour de force for Black Betty, vocally and lyrically.

The rocker “Southern Road” serves as a tribute to the late Johnny Winter, featuring more outstanding lead work from both Poppen and Ricci, and the gospel-flavored “Biscuits, Bacon, & The Blues” reflects on all the things that are most important in life (all three of those items are pretty high on my list, anyway). The funky mash-up of Bill Withers’ R&B hit “Use Me” and Dr. John’s “Walkin’ On Gilded Splinters” (titled “Use Me On Gilded Splinters”) is fantastic, too.

Black Betty’s version of Etta James’ “I’d Rather Go Blind” stays faithful to the iconic original version, but also allows the singer ample space to showcase her own vocal chops to magnificent effect, and her singing on the original “Deal The Devil Made” seamlessly blends jazz and the blues. The poignant ballad that closes the album, “The One Who Got Away,” originally appeared on the benefit album, “Cancer Can Rock.”

The I.B.C. Best Self-Produced CD award was well deserved. Sweet Thing is a dynamite set of blues and soul that deserves to heard. Hopefully, blues fans will be hearing much more from Black Betty and Moonshine Society soon.

--- Graham Clarke

Polly O'KearyPolly O’Keary and the Rhythm Method’s previous release, Black Crow Calling, was a finalist in the 2017 I.B.C. Best Self-Produced Album category and was their best studio effort to date. The band recently released a live album, As Live As It Gets, that captures the band in fine form. O’Keary (bass/vocals) and husband Tommy Cook (drums) served four years as rhythm section for Too Slim & the Taildraggers, and guitarist David Miller is a legend on the West Coast music scene.

The entertaining 13-song set includes tunes from the band’s previous releases along with several well-chosen covers. The trio rips through “Red Light,” “A Man Who Can Stand,” “I Don’t Understand,” and the slow burning title track from Black Crow Calling, “Stop, Train” from 2014’s Compass, “Sugar Daddy,” and the title track from 2007’s Who Needs The Blues, and “Hard Act To Follow” and the title track from the band’s 2004 debut, Gather ‘Round Me Angels.

The band also does a splendid job on a pair of Ronnie Earl tunes (“I Wish You Could See Me Now” and “It’s My Soul”), and Eric Bibb’s “In My Father’s House” (which appeared on Who Needs The Blues). Miller takes the mic for a magnificent extended read of “Old Love,” written by Eric Clapton and Robert Cray for Clapton’s 1989 Journeyman album.

Recorded at three spots (Village Taphouse & Grill in Maryville, Washington, Peabo’s Sports Bar & Grill in Mill Creek, Washington, and the Kamiah Hotel Bar & Grill in Kamiah, Idaho), there’s no question that As Live As It Gets captures Polly O’Keary and the Rhythm Method at their finest, playing their best material in front of several appreciative, enthusiastic audiences.

--- Graham Clarke

Professor LouieProfessor Louie & The Crowmatix started out as the studio backing band for Aaron L. Hurwitz (a.k.a. “Professor Louiew York, the Grammy-nominated group plays 150 shows a year and have released 15 albums, their most recent being Miles Of Blues (Woodstock Records), which is subtitled “From L-50 to Steampunk and Miles of Blues in between.” The ten-song set is typical of the band’s previous work, which skillfully blends blues, rock, gospel, and roots music, featuring eight originals and two covers.

The opener, “L-50 Blues,” is a glorious tribute to the Gibson guitar and its influence on the blues, and guitarist John Platania gets ample opportunity to display his slide guitar work on the track. “Funky Steampunk Blues,” the next track is just that with a down and dirty backbeat that would make Bo Diddley proud. The driving “Love Bound” reintroduces singer Miss Marie, whose charms are described by the good professor on the piano blues “Passion In My Life.”

“Rain 40 Days” ventures into Crescent City second line territory, describing the annual ordeal of dealing with hurricane season, and the lively traveling song “Exit Zero” finds Professor Louie showing his keyboard chops. The two cover songs appear next: first Miss Marie gives a wonderful reading of Percy Mayfield’s “Please Send Me Someone To Love,” and Professor Louie covers “Orange Juice Blues,” a jaunty, but seldom-heard tune from Richard Manuel that originated during The Band’s Music From Big Pink days.

The Woodstock Horns make a prominent appearance on the splendid slow blues “Oh My Lady,” and again on the live track that closes the disc, “Bull Frog Jam Blues,” a wild and entertaining free-for-all that gives all the musicians ample space to solo.

Music lovers are always guaranteed a good time and some great music with every release from Professor Louie & The Crowmatix, and Miles Of Blues is no exception to the rule.

--- Graham Clarke

Vaneese ThomasFor her latest album, Down Yonder (Segue Records), Vaneese Thomas recorded basic tracks at Peaceful Waters Studios in New York, enlisting among others, SNL drummer Shawn Pelton and David Letterman bassist Will Lee, guitarist Al Orlo and keyboardist Robbie Kondor. She then traveled to her native Memphis, calling on Lawrence “Boo” Mitchell and the Reverend Charles Hodges, Bo-Keys co-founder/trumpeter Marc Franklin, sax man Kirk Smothers, and her sister Carla Thomas to add a bit of Bluff City grease to the proceedings.

Down Yonder features a dozen originals, leading off with the swampy funk of “Ebony Man,” the story of a sharecropper where Thomas’ spirited vocal is punctuated by Tash Neal’s understated dobro. On the horn-fueled soul ballad “I Tried,” Thomas gives a powerful performance, and on “Highway of Regret,” the vibe moves seamlessly between country and soul, thanks in part to Katie Jacoby. “Wake Me” is an uptempo blue rocker, and the redemptive “Second Chance” includes the familiar B3 “swoosh” of the Reverend Hodges and backing vocals from Carla Thomas and Berneta Miles.

The heartfelt “Mama He Loves Me” is a prime showcase for Thomas’ emotive vocals, and she doesn’t disappoint,. “Lies” is a feisty, funky blues, while on the ballad “Handle Me Gently” the passion really builds as she takes her time with the song and squeezes every drop of emotion from it. The socially conscious “Legacy of Pain,” a duet with Kevin Bacon, takes a pointed look at unprosecuted, unsolved murders in Mississippi. “Last Kiss” is pure Memphis soul at its best, “Gone” is a great gospel piece that will light your fire even if your wood is wet. The gospel feel carries over to the title track, which closes the disc on a goosebump-inducing note.

Down Yonder is a gloriously earthy mix of blues, soul, gospel, and R&B. It’s another typically winning set from Vanesse Thomas, who continues to establish herself as one of the best singers and songwriters currently practicing.

--- Graham Clarke

Ronnie Earl and the BroadcastersBeyond the Blue Door (Stony Plain Records), the latest album by Ronnie Earl and the Broadcasters, is described by the award-winning guitarist as a “band album – a community of souls with some guests, new directions and good old down home blues…..” This description is an apt one for any Ronnie Earl album, to be honest, and certainly so for this one, a sparkling 15-song set from the masterful guitarist and band (keyboardist Dave Limina, singer Diane Blue, bassist Paul Kochanski, and drummer Forrest Padgett), also featuring a host of musical guests.

The opener, “Brand New Me,” was previously recorded by Dusty Springfield and Aretha Franklin, among others. Ms. Blue ably handles the vocals on this classic old school track and Earl’s guitar work is in the right place at the right time, as always. Kim Wilson provides vocals and harmonica on Howlin’ Wolf’s “How Long,” with keyboardist Anthony Geraci and guitarist Peter Ward also sitting in. Next up is a fabulous instrumental reading of “Drown In My Own Tears,” with saxman extraordinaire Greg Piccolo accompanying Earl’s supremely soulful fretwork. The pair also collaborated “Alexis’ Song,” with Earl returning the favor, backing Piccolo on this brief, mellow instrumental.

“The Sweetest Man” is a breezy, mid-tempo shuffle with Ward contributing on guitar, and Earl teams with David Bromberg (who sings and plays acoustic guitar) for an exquisite reading of Bob Dylan’s “It Takes A Lot To Laugh, It Takes A Train To Cry.” I first heard Earl’s “A Soul That’s Been Abused” way back in the late 1980’s on Hubert Sumlin’s Blues Party (sung by Mighty Sam McClain --- if you missed this one, track it down and you can thank me later). I believe Earl’s guitar work is even better on this extended version and Ms. Blue’s vocal rivals McClain in soul and intensity.

Timmy Thomas’ “Why Can’t We Live Together” finds Blue in a soulful mode with Earl and the Broadcasters adding a funky edge to the tune. Meanwhile, Wilson returns for another blues standard, a slow burning take of Little Walter’s “Blues With A Feeling” (with Ward and Scott MacDougal guesting on guitar), and Earl contributes a pair of fine instrumentals that pay tribute to two blues icons: the swinging shuffle “T-Bone Stomp” and the down home “Wolf Song” (with Wilson and Geraci). Earl also dusts off his own “Peace of Mind,” this version highlighted by Blue’s smoky vocal and Earl’s crisp guitar runs.

On the old Joe Simon soul hit, “Drowning in a Sea of Love,” Piccolo and fellow tenor saxophonist Mario Perrett add spice to Earl’s fiery guitar work. Bassist Kochanski contributed the topical “Bringing Light (to a Dark Time),” and the album closes with the pensive instrumental “Blues For Charlottesville.”

Beyond The Blue Door covers a lot of musical territory with blues, soul, R&B, and jazz. It’s all presented with the style, class, and grace that one has come to expect from a Ronnie Earl and the Broadcasters release.

--- Graham Clarke

Annika ChambersAnnika Chambers took home the 2019 Blues Music Award for Soul Blues Female Artist of the Year. Her third studio release, Kiss My Sass (VizzTone Records) gives every indication that the Houston-based singer might take the award home in 2020 as well. The ten-song set only features mostly covers, but Chambers’ interpretations make them seem autobiographical at times. The effort was produced by Larry Fulcher and Richard Cagle, with assistance on a few tracks from Tony Braunagel and Kevin Houston, and features a fine group of musicians in support.

On the opening shuffle, “Let That Sass Out,” Ms. Chambers does just that, backed by the twin guitars of The Mighty Orq and Corey Stoot. The soulful “That’s What You Made Me” follows, also loaded with sass, then the mid-tempo “You Can’t Win,” originally from the musical, The Wiz (performed by Michael Jackson). Next up is the reflective gospel/soul of “What’s Your Thing,” with Chambers asking listeners to look beyond race to peace, love, and freedom. On this track, she’s backed by Ruthie Foster on acoustic guitar and background vocals and The Mighty Orq on pedal steel.

Chambers pays tribute to Angela Strehli with a dynamite cover of her “Two Bit Texas Town,” which acknowledges Howlin’ Wolf and other blues artists that opened the world of the blues to her. “Brand New Day” is a slow blues that allows Chambers to show her considerable vocal chops, and “World Of Hurt” is a Memphis-styled soul burner. She also does a magnificent job on Carolyn Wonderland’s “Stay” (one of my favorite songs that I’m surprised isn’t covered more often), and the bluesy “In The Basement.”

Saving the best for last, Chambers closes with Chris Smither’s “I Feel The Same,” a stripped-down duet with Paul DesLauriers (who also plays slide guitar) which captures each singer’s distinctive vocal style perfectly.

Kiss My Sass is a most excellent set of blues and soul that features Annika Chambers at her very best. Chances are good that blues fans will see her holding another trophy at this year’s BMA’s, based on this sterling effort.

--- Graham Clarke

Grainne DuffyIf ever there was a time for optimism, positivity, faith and hope, this is it as the world experiences coronavirus blues. For blues fans our beloved music is a lifeline, and because it is shared with a global community we are never alone. As John Lee Hooker reminded us in his 1989 comeback album The Healer, “The blues is a healer all over the world, it healed me it can heal you.” At a time of increasing gloom and doom, it is important to look out for and to share the green shoots of recovery. One such moment is the single release, Blue Skies, as Irish guitarist, songwriter and chanteuse Grainne Duffy looks beyond the dark clouds to those clear blue skies. This punchy, upbeat, hard riffing blues rocking track stays in the listener’s psyche for a long time, the perfect antidote to current woes.

A compatriot of and spiritual successor to Rory Gallagher, multi award-winning and Glastonbury favorite Duffy has legendary status in her native Ireland and beyond. Anyone not familiar with her music should think Bonnie Raitt meets Joe Walsh, to use an American analogy, but even this comparison does a serious disservice to Grainne’s distinctive musical identity. What makes her unique is the innovative blend of blues, rock, Americana, country and Celtic influences, inspirational songwriting and performances characterized by intense, emotional vocals and dazzling fretwork.

The infectious riff of “Blue Skies” precedes the implosion of Grainne’s smoky, powerful vocals reaching a crescendo with the chorus, “I got the blue skies baby up above/I got the bright lights burning and I just can’t get enough.” The singer is clearly in a good place and enjoying the vibe which she transmits with her trademark sincerity and raw energy, complemented by atmospheric background vocals. Duffy’s piercing guitar interludes are timely and tasteful with virtuosic guitarist Paul Sherry maintaining the mesmeric pace and rhythm alongside the dynamic drums of Troy Miller and bassist Dale Davis. Grainne’s superb vocal range is evident as she softens her voice to add drama to the beautifully crafted lyrics which reflect the happiness in her life and career. Grainne never loses the pure joy of singing and she exudes the cheerfulness we all need to reassure us at this difficult time.

You can hear more of Grainne Duffy on her highly acclaimed 2017 album Where I Belong while waiting for her new CD release later in the year. For more info, check Duffy's website at www.grainneduffy.com.

--- Dave Scott



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