Austin, Texas-based Omar & The Howlers have always included a little bit of swing in their blues, but they venture all the way into the genre on the aptly-named Swing Land (Black Top). Omar Dykes' booming, raspy voice is well-suited for the material chosen for the CD, especially on the Screamin' Jay Hawkins covers "Yellow Coat" and the crazy "Alligator Wine." Omar also shows an affinity for Wynonie Harris songs, doing nice versions of "Mr. Blues Is Coming To Town" and "Quiet Whiskey." The band tackles Albert Collins' "Don't Lose Your Cool," giving it a lighter, bouncy feel than the original. Nick Connolly contributes outstanding keyboard work on this number. Austin guitar star Derek O'Brien is highlighted on the slow blues "One Room Country Shack." In a time when it seems as if every band is recording a swing album, it's refreshing to hear one from a band that knew how to swing years before it was cool.
Young guitarist Rusty Zinn should have been born 50 years sooner so as to have been in his prime during the 1940s. Everything about this cat --- his guitar style, the tailored suits with the handkerchief in the pocket, the two-tone shoes, his hair style --- would have been in fashion during the early post-war years. Zinn blends a multitude of blues styles on Confessin', his second CD for Black Top Records. My favorites are the three numbers on which he's backed by The Gospel All-Stars: two Five Royales covers, "Don't Let It Be In Vain" and "Think," and a Johnny Otis tune "If You Ever Get Lonesome." The original "Confessin' About My Baby" intros with a real churchy organ solo from Jimmy Pugh, then Zinn kicks in with some very hot T-bone Walker guitar. For a rawer sound, be sure to listen to the primal, rhythmic "Big Road Blues." Rusty Zinn is a young talent who just keeps getting better. Watch for him in your town soon!
Cephas & Wiggins have now been together as a performing duo for 20 years, and it's been a great partnership for fans of Piedmont-style acoustic blues. The marriage of Cephas' charcoal vocals and finger-picking guitar style with the younger Wiggins' tasteful harmonica fills have guaranteed them their spot in blues history. Homemade (Alligator) is an appropriate title for the feel of this music, as it's more what you would hear coming from someone's back porch instead of a smoky nightclub. Wiggins plays fantastic harmonica on the original "Spider Woman," concentrating on the higher notes. John Cephas is truly on the great, but underrated, vocalists in the blues world --- check out his performance on the autobiographical "I Was Determined." "Walking Mama" features delightful harmony vocals from the duo. Finally, the CD ends with a spirited Blind Boy Fuller cover, "Pigmeat." Highly recommended.
It's truly a mystery why any of the major U.S. blues labels haven't signed L.A. guitarist Roy Gaines to a recording contract. The man is incredible, both on CD and in person. His recent JSP album, Bluesman For Life, was our Pick Hit in December '98. Now I've come across a disc which might even be better --- Gaines' tribute album to one of his musical heroes, I've Got The T-Bone Walker Blues (Groove Note Records). He's accompanied by top-notch musicians like Will Miller (trumpet), Clifford Solomon (tenor sax), Andy Kaulkin (piano), Bill Stuve (bass), and Steve Magulian (drums). This ensembles does an awesome job in recreating the the T-bone sound, but it's Gaines' guitar and vocals that steal the show. Of course the standards like "Stormy Monday" and "T-Bone Shuffle" are here. In addition to the band version of the former song, Gaines closes the album with a nice solo acoustic version of the same. "The Hustle Is On" is a hot uptempo number, while Miller shows his considerable trumpet skills on the slow blues "I'm In An Awful Mood." Gaines adds a little variety to the disc with a novel rendition of Hank Williams' "Honky Tonk Blues," playing some of his best guitar.
Another Gaines in the midst of a comeback is the Nashville soul singer Earl Gaines (no relation to Roy). His comeback album on Black Top was a co-Pick Hit last November. Now his earliest recordings, from 1958 through 1966, have been released by The Netherland's Black Magic Records.24 Hours A Day includes 45s originally on the Champion, Poncello, Hit and Hanna-Barbera labels (yes, the latter was an off-shoot of the cartoon company). The title cut was Gaines' biggest hits, and remains a classic to this day. "Three Times Seven," a slow, soulful ballad, features Gaines' strongest vocal work. He also does a phenomenal cover of "You Are My Sunshine," practically turning it into a different song. The strongest blues cut is the slow, powerful "Mercy On My Soul," with great guitar from Nashville session regular Johnny Jones (read the review of Jones' Black Magic album).
And now for more great stuff out of Nashville! Leavin' Tennessee (Black Magic) contains new recordings from former Excello artist Al Garner & The Roadrunners. Garner has a very strong, powerful voice, and is backed by a tight band with a good horn section. The title cut is an uptempo remake of one of Garner's earlier Excello recordings, while "Gonna Stop My Drinkin'" is an excellent slow blues. There are several guest vocalists, including fellow Nashvillians Earl Gaines, Sonny Tyler, Roscoe Shelton and "Little" Charles Walker. The latter singer is incredible on his number, "Slave To Love." I need to hear more from him!
If all of these rave reviews of Black Magic CDs whet your appetite, then you should check out Witchcraft - Black Magic For Beginners. This disc contains cuts from 15 different Black Magic albums, all released in the past several years. The aforementioned Johnny Jones, Earl Gaines and Al Garner all have one song here. Also notable is one tune from the excellent album by Chicago soul singer Lee Shot Williams.
Late Night Blues: Live At the New Penelope Cafe - 1967 (Justin Time Records) is the second of two discs capturing blues harmonica star James Cotton in concert in one of Montreal's premier blues clubs. The first CD consisted of the early show, with Cotton and band doing more of a contemporary, soul-oriented set. But this album came out of the late show, when the blues diehards were in the crowd. Thus it's a much rootsier performance. The sound quality is decent, but not great. The band, led by Luther Tucker on guitar, is very hot, and Cotton's harmonica playing is superb, especially on a version of "Rocket 88." The entire show consisted of covers of blues standards of the day.
My personal tastes generally run towards a purer form of blues, so I don't usually look forward to listening to a CD from an artist declared to be in the blues/rock category. But occasionally I'm pleasantly surprised when a hard rockin' album hits me right. One such disc is Bustin' Loose (Blue Loon Records), from Southern California guitarist/singer Teresa Russell and her band Cocobilli. Ms. Russell is a solid, "no nonsense" guitar player, and also possesses a strong voice. Bringing together the entire package, she's also a talented songwriter; all 12 cuts on Bustin' Loose are band originals. Ms. Russell's best guitar work comes on the midtempo blues "Up Against The Wall," while her strongest vocal work is on the slow soulful ballad "Just Outside." Teresa Russell is definitely a talent on the rise. I look forward to hearing more from her.
Women Blues Singers (MCA) is a fine compilation with 46 tracks over two CDs, covering a wide variety of styles. The tracks are arranged chronologically, with disc one covering the years 1928 through 1951. Some of the best pre-war vocalists are represented here, including Memphis Minnie, Victoria Spivey, Rosetta Tharpe, Alberta Hunter, Billie Holiday, and Dinah Washington. There are several risqué classics, such as Georgia White's "I'll Keep Sittin' On It (If I Can't Sell It)" and "Hot Nuts (Get 'Em From The Peanut Man),", and Blue Lu Barker's "Don't You Make Me High." Another personal favorite is Rosetta Howard's version of "If You're A Viper." The second disc picks back up in 1951 and goes through the 1969 recording of "Three O'Clock Blues" from Ike & Tina Turner. (I never knew that this tune featured Albert Collins on guitar). Big Mama Thornton's standard "Hound Dog," Koko Taylor's "Wang Dang Doodle," and Etta James' "Something's Got A Hold On Me" are the best-known songs here. The bizarre but great "Take Out Your False Teeth Daddy" from Margie Day is also included. A very nice collection.
If hard drivin' blues is your thing, then be sure to find the latest disc from Memphis-based Junkyardmen. Scrapheap Full Of Blues (Inside Memphis) is highlighted by the appearance of veteran Memphis pianist Mose Vinson on two raw blues cuts, "Tell It Like It Is" and "What Is Your Life." But the Junkyardmen, led by harmonica player Billy Gibson, are a good band in their own right. They can get funky, as on "What Time Does The Bus Leave?" And they can also take it to church, as you'll hear on the closing uptempo, gospel-sounding cut "Washin' My Hands," which features nice harp work from Gibson. Guitarist Jesse Hoggard plays his strongest solos on the slow blues "Same Old Blues." These guys are worth checking out.
Florida band The Underdogs are a decent four-piece ensemble, as evidenced on their new CD Unleashed (Howlin' Muse Records). There's nothing here that will knock your socks off, but it's a pleasant enough album. I liked the original "Bye-Bye," a snaky kind of jazzy blues tune. Their version of Willie Dixon's "I'm Ready" is very interesting, as they give it much more of a jazz interpretation. You can learn more about The Underdogs from their web site.
Friend 'n Fellow appears to be a Germany-based duo, consisting of Constanze Friend on vocals and Thomas Fellow on guitar. Purple Rose (Ruf Records) has kind of a Euro-jazzy sound to it, and consists more of torch songs than straight blues. But Ms. Friend is an excellent singer, while Fellow contributes very tasty guitar work on 13 original tunes. Nice stuff.
mystery is solved! For years I wondered just who was the "Chuck E" that Rickie
Lee Jones sang about in her early 80s hit. Chuck E. Weiss is a Los
Angeles musical recluse, and Extremely Cool (Slow River / Ryko) is his first CD
in nearly 20 years. The album was produced by Weiss' buddy Tom Waits, and the music here
has much of a Waits sound. The CD opens with a raw Delta-style blues, "Devil With
Blue Suede Shoes." Weiss then takes it across the ocean with "Oh Marcy,"
partly sung in French and accompanied by accordion. The title cut is a slow, gritty tunes
which sounds very much like something Waits would have recorded. Weiss makes his light,
jazzy "Roll On Jordan" sound like it's a scratchy old 78 being played on an old
Victrola. And "Do You Know What I Idi Amin" defies description. I recommend this
CD for anyone looking for something offbeat and original, and especially for Tom Waits
--- Bill Mitchell
The cover art and woodcuts on the liner notes to Clarence Brewer's King Clarentz (HighTone Records) show Brewer to be an accomplished artist. And his slide guitar playing on these 12 cuts demonstrates mastery of that instrument. Where he falls short is in his singing and songwriting. Many of the eight originals on this 12-song CD are John Lee Hooker-style talking blues with subjects that are naturals for the blues--politics ("Old GOP"), sex ("Bed Spring Boogie"), the supernatural ("Devil's Den," "Graveyard Blues," and "Halloween Blues"). But he sometimes veers into uncharted territory. This is probably the only blues (or perhaps any other genre) CD to mention "rat's gonads" (in Fast Food Slow Death"). Don't expect McDonald's to sponsor a tour anytime soon. His voice has a stilted, affected style that sometimes is effective in conveying emotion, but a steady diet of it grows tedious. If Brewer is trying to claim a birthright as one of John Lee Hooker's Boogie Chillen', he has some work to do.
--- Mark Miller
Lazy Lester is back and playing and singing as well as ever on his new release on the Antone's label, All Over You. If you like swamp blues, then this is the CD for you. Lester was one of the original players. It has been a while since his last release, but well worth the wait. He hasn't lost a step. Backed by the wonderful Texas players Derek O'Brien and company, Lester steps out in style. When I first heard this the only thing I could say was, "Thank you." If you like this CD, check out some of the re-releases by Slim Harpo and Lightnin' Slim on Excello Records. All Over You is one of the best CDs so far this year.
--- Greg Neuschwander
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