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March 1998

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Sista MonicaOne of the hottest new voices on the blues scene is the Bay Area's Sistah Monica. While friends had been raving about her to me for several years, I still wasn't prepared for the power of this young woman's vocals on her new album entitled Sista Monica (Mo Muscle Records). This is a good solid collection mostly original tunes, in a style described by one music writer as "... chest thumping onslaught of gospel funk and groovy blues ..." Sista Monica is at her best on an utterly stunning a capella medley of "Amazing Grace / Motherless Child." Say amen, somebody!

Longtime fans of Maria Muldaur will want to pick up her latest CD, Southland of the Heart (Telarc). But those looking for a bluesier sound should look elsewhere. This disc is not as spirited as her Black Top releases from a few years ago. The CD jacket shows her relaxing in a rocking chair on a big, old-fashioned porch, and the music here has that same laid-back feel. "If I Were You" is a catchy tune with a bit of a blues sound, and "Blues Gives A Lesson" is a slow snaky blues.

David Honeyboy EdwardsWith the number of great blues artists that we've lost in the last 12 months, it becomes more important to treasure the few pioneers still living. David Honeyboy Edwards is one of the few remaining links to Robert Johnson, having been playing the blues since 1932. The recordings on The World Don't Owe Me Nothing (Earwig) were done last year, most cut at the original site of the Leland Hotel in Aurora, Illinois. It was at the Leland that artists like Tampa Red, Big Joe Williams, Robert Nighthawk, and others made their earliest recordings for the Bluebird label. Always a very diverse artist, Edwards mixes Delta classics like "Walkin' Blues," "Catfish Blues" and "Crossroads" with relatively more recent tunes like "Hide Away." As an added bonus, there are also several stories told during the session by Edwards. It's also notable that harmonica player Carey Bell accompanies Edwards on seven of the songs.

Smokey Wilson is no longer the unknown artist that he was in 1986 when Black Magic Records originally released this untitled album. Three excellent albums on Bullseye Blues and appearances at most major festivals have introduced him to scores of blues fans around the world. Wilson was backed here by The William Clarke Band on 11 very good numbers. This is rough and raw blues at its best, a veteran performer backed by some of L.A.'s best young musicians.

The Radio Kings pulled together a great collection of vintage photos of the rural South for the jacket of their new CD, Money Road (Bullseye Blues & Jazz). The music inside is quite fine, too, as band kicks out some hot roots rock, blues and R&B. Frontman Brian Templeton is a good, nasally singer, at his best on the soulful "Leave a Light On." He also plays nice harp on the slow blues "The Shelf."

Otis Clay has always been near the top of my list of favorite soul and blues singers, and This Time Around (Bullseye Blues) further cements his reputation is one of the finest crooners around. This is a real "feel good" album, especially on the catchy "I Can Handle It." Clay's vocals are strongest on the highly charged "That's How It Is." Another great release from a guy who deserves much more acclaim than he's received in his career. If only we Americans appreciated him as much as his Japanese fans.

Don't Worry, Sing The BluesWith all due respect to Bobby McFerrin, I like the title of this fine compilation better than his hit song of a few years ago. Don't Worry, Sing The Blues collects 17 songs originally released on various albums from the Minneapolis-based Atomic Theory Records. This is a very cohesive collection, highlighted by veteran Minnesota blues bands Lamont Cranston and their offspring The Hoopsnakes. The former contributes a real, high octane blues in "Play The Blues," while the latter does a fun novelty tune in "The First Man (Who Ever Had The Blues)." Among the other artists represented here are Jimmy Rogers, James Solberg, Willie Murphy, Lynwood Slim, and Al Rapone.

The above compilation also contains one cut from The Butanes Soul Revue. If you like that song, then you'll want to pick up One Night (Atomic Theory), captured live in 1990 when Minneapolis band The Butanes added a bigger horn section and a few extra singers for a rousing night of classic soul. I can never have too many versions of O.V. Wright's "A Nickel And A Nail," and this band does well by this soul chestnut, with strong singing from their female vocalists. But the pick of the litter here is the red hot slow, soulful, gospel-influenced blues "Without You."

I'm on record as being a big fan of gospel greats The Blind Boys of Alabama. But this CD moves over one state for a similarly-named group, The Original Five Blind Boys of Mississippi. In Concert (MUSA) was recorded at a series of concerts in Germany in 1996. Somehow these recordings don't catch the spark that I'm sure the live shows contained, at least not until the last few numbers. The group does a strong version of "If I Had A Hammer," then really gets the spirit on the closing 14 1/2 minute song "Oh Lord, You Done What The Doctor Could Not Do." Still, this is good harmonizing gospel music, and I recommend the disc for fans of that style.

To hear a style of blues that has on the most part faded away, check out the reissue of Hammie Nixon's Tappin' That Thing (High Water / HMG). The late Mr. Nixon, who was best known as Sleepy John Estes' partner for many years, was recorded in Memphis on several occasions from 1982 to 1984. In addition to singing, he plays harmonica, kazoo and the jug. The title cut, which I played frequently during my days as a radio host, is a free spirited romp recalling picnics and country frolics from many years ago.

Goin' To Brownsville (Testament / HMG) contains 21 recordings from Sleepy John Estes from 1962, followed by a priceless 18-minute interview with the blues legend done by Pete Welding. Estes is in fine form on remakes of some of his classic songs like "Divin' Duck" and "Sloppy Drunk Blues."

Equally essential is another Testament reissue, Levee Camp Blues, from Mississippi singer/guitarist Fred McDowell. The concept is similar to that of the Estes album, in that McDowell in 1968 reprised some of his classic deep, ethereal blues songs. The best here is the brooding gospel number "When I Lay My Burden Down."

Two old pals from my days in North Carolina have each just released new CDs for the Chapel Hill-based New Moon Music. Danny Morris, who spent a few years as the guitarist with Washington, D.C.'s The Nighthawks, is out with a very musically diverse album Storm Surge. Morris has adapted a kind of "Otis Rush meets Dick Dale" sound, merging straight blues with surf rock. The title cut is a strong West Side Chicago blues, on which his prodigious guitar talent really shows through. He also does a nice version of Jimmy Rogers' "That's Alright," while the Albert Collins influence comes out on the original "Swing With You Baby." The best surf tune is the instrumental "Moon Relay." Armand Lenchek has played behind North Carolina veterans like the late Walter "Lightnin' Bug" Rhodes and Skeeter Brandon. With his band Bluesology, he's now released a tasty collection of tunes entitled Everything I Need. Lencheck is a smoother player than Morris, dabbling more in jazz styles. The best cut here is the slow blues original "Cold, Cold World." "Armand's Attitude" is a nice jazzy instrumental.

Peachfish Stew from Swamp Mama Johnson came in a few months ago, but somehow slipped to the bottom of my pile. Even though its no longer a brand new release, I felt that it's worthy of mention. This all-woman band from Washington state is highlighted by the strong vocals of Lisa Mills, whose voice is somewhat reminiscent of that of Tracy Nelson. Tracy Ferrara plays some mean sax on a cover of "Pucker Up Buttercup," and the band shows they can get real funky on the original "Addiction."

--- Bill Mitchell

While all but one of the 12 songs on Hot Shot (Wild Dog Blues) by Little Mike and the Tornadoes were written by New Yorker Michael "Little Mike" Markowitz, they are very much in a 1960s Chicago vein. He says that the album "was influenced by, and recorded in the style of, my most favorite blues recordings by James Cotton, Otis Spann, Paul Butterfield, Jimmy Rogers, Jimmy Reed and Muddy Waters." He's done a good job. Little Mike's harp playing (as well as his vocals and work on piano) and the guitar work of Troy Chandler evoke those blues greats. "Trying To Make It" is an uptempo number that showcases Chandler, while "I Won't Be Your Fool" conjures up the memory of James Cotton's frenetic harp style, with some equally hot guitar riffs. "True Love" has an added treat --- Mitch Margold's work on the Hammond B-3.

--- Mark Miller

 

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