Detroit Blues 2000
There has been an explosion of new blues talent in the Motor City over the past decade, or so. Veterans have been discovered as "new" by a young crop of fans, as well. Alberta Adams and Johnnie Bassett have been wowing them from coast to coast and in Europe for the past couple of years. Unfortunately, Eddie Burns and Little Sonny don't play out much anymore. The great Willie D. Warren and influential disc jockey The Famous Coachman passed away in December. John Lee Hooker moved to the West Coast 20 years ago. The Soup Kitchen was closed after 25 years to make room for a casino (aghhh!). Still, the blues are alive and thriving in Detroit and environs. Recording studios are staying plenty busy, too. Below are a handful of discs released in the last year or so.
This quintet has been together for nearly two decades. Their first disc, Gimme Some Skin (Blues Factory - 1996), was a local favorite that helped spread their rep past the city limits. This sophomore effort follows the same formula of dyed-in-the wool classic urban blues. 11 of the 13 tunes are band originals, and the covers of Willie Dixon's "I Do The Do" and Bobo Jenkins' "Shake 'Em On Down" are well chosen and executed covers. They're loud and bawdy, and 100% certified non-hyphenated blues. Vocalist Dave Krammer counts Howlin' Wolf as an influence, harpist "Wailin' Dale" Blankenship comes out of the school of the Sonny Boys, guitarist Steve Schwartz has as much of a West Coast (Jr. Watson, etc.) groove as an appreciation for classic Elmore James. Drummer Mark Seyler and bassist Pete Kiss supply the engine.
(Venture Records. 23814 Michigan Avenue, #244. Dearborn, MI 48124)
Mark Braun, aka Mr. B, is a hometown hero when he isn't touring the country. Schooled at the feet of Boogie Woogie Red and Little Brother Montgomery, B brings the stylistic lessons learned to this joyful collection. Tributes to each ("Rockin' With Red," and "Little Brother" and "Cornell St.") are here, along with nods to other heroes Horace Silver ("Deep Excavation"), Art Hodes ("I Never Looked Away From You"), Ray Bryant ("The Ray"), and Jimmy Yancey ("White Sox"). Joined by drummer Pete Siers and bassist Paul Keller, Mr. B assays the roots of boogie piano with the intense joy of a master pianist. This is the bigger treat for Mr. B fans, as he no longer plays a lot of this music in concert.
(Joybox Records. 505 East Huron St. #302. Ann Arbor, MI 48104)
Following two excellent efforts on JSP, the Butler Twins Blues Band finally release the disc that captures what is most amazing about them. Big city juke joint blues is their forte, and the Alabama transplants have been the best in Detroit for combining the cultures of Northern factories and Southern back porches for decades. Three bands showed up for this live set recorded at the Attic in Hamtramck. Jeff Grand plays lead for the first three numbers, Billy Farris takes the next three, and Kenny Parker came back for the final two. Clarence Butler's vocals and harp are hypnotic and twin Curtis Butler's rhythm guitar is instilled with the voodoo.
(Backporch Bluesproject Records. 2645 Conner. Hamtramck, MI. 313-365-5265)
This one from Chicago Pete has been around for a few years, but is worthy of mention nonetheless. This 16-track masterpiece covers the spectrum of Little Milton's title cut through Roosevelt Sykes "Drivin' Wheel," a handful of classic sounding originals and a few obscurities that are splendidly done by the master. Pete has played bass with the likes of Junior Parker, Earl Hooker, Luther Allison, Eddie Burns and others. He toured Europe with Jimmy Dawkins. He's concentrated on his singing since relocating to Detroit in the 1970s. Given his relentless touring schedule, he rarely plays for the hometown folks.
(Speakeasy CDs. 416 Ferndale Ave. London, Ontario, Canada N6C 2Y8. 519-668-6443)
This was the first Harmonica Shah disc of the two to hit the streets almost simultaneously. It's raggedy and scary in an Eddie Kirkland kind of way. With guitarist Howard Glaser leading a strong set of guest players (including former Patti Smith bassist Gary Rasmussen), Deep Detroit is appropriately titled. The connection between blues, jazz and rock artists in Detroit in the 1960s and '70s was strong, and this plays on that bond. The jams are adventurous and riveting, and outside of a few superb covers (Jimmy Reed, Willie Dixon, Sonny Boy and Frank Patt's great "Bloodstains Upside The Wall"), the palate is heavy on originals.
(Bluetrack Records. PO Box 1028. Oxford 0X3 8XX UK. www.bluesarchive.com)
The Harmonica Shah is seen here working out of a more traditional style. The recording is older than the Bluetrack collection, though it came out a few weeks afterward. This features local legend Little Junior Cannaday on guitar (as well as Eddie Kirkland, Doug Deming and a few others), Bill Heid, Detroit Piano Fats and Uncle Jesse White at the keys, R.J. Spangler with solid drumming, and a cast of other equally impressive players. The groove is decidedly more in the pocket and less experimental than the British import. Jimmy Reed and Elmore James are covered, but it's mostly originals that shine ("Crazy Old Bastard" and "Jam At Long Tooth John's Junkyard").
(Blue Suit Records. P.O. Box 352707. Toledo, OH 352707)
Street Blues Band
A band that has seen its share of personnel shifting lately, this is one that works a crowd and works up a sweat. Guitarist Paul Washington is one of the city's best, with razor sharp lines and a gospel sensitivity that helps the band keep a strong following in every corner of town. Recorded live at a small supper club that was obviously loaded with supporters, they cover B.B. King's "Sweet Sixteen," but the rest of the program is original and impressive. Vocalist Cubie is up front for most of the set and makes it clear how she likes her men to take care of her with chops to match her humor.
Al Hill &
The Love Butlers
Mr. Hill has the piano seat nailed down with Johnnie Bassett's Blues Insurgents, but he's been well seated on the local scene for many years. Based out of Ann Arbor, he's a triple threat of the first degree. His piano playing is dazzling, his guitar work is nearly as dazzling, and his songwriting is great (really). "One Way Ticket" exhorts the New Orleans tradition, "Waiting At The Station" is gritty, and the title cut is brilliant ("...You've got a fire in your eye/you've got fire upon your tongue/You've got a thousand dollar smile/when you say the end has come..."). Add the originals to covers of "Early In The Mornin'," "Worried Life Blues," and a few other chestnuts, and the results are a grand slam.
& The Flamethrowers
Nikki James has the chops of a seasoned veteran. She's hardly a novice, but with about a decade under her belt, she may be the greenest performer on this list. Time on the line don't necessarily mean a whole bunch. Nikki cranks it like a vet. That each of the 11 tunes herein came from her pen is more reason to take notice. "Felt So Right," with it's Joplin-esque feel, the deep acoustic "Phone Call," with Robert Jones on guitar, and the rollicking "Fat Girl" are the standouts. But for those who like a whole lot of contemporary blues with a big city groove, this will fill the bill. Expect this to get a nod in the local music awards.
Emmanuel Garza, one of the founding members of the late, great Detroit Blues Band, is the most familiar name here, though harper/singer Mark Robinson is making a big splash locally since the formation of these bad Sheiks. Recorded live at Mickey Finn's in Toledo, James Harman pops in for a cameo on one tune, but this ain't no West Coast band. The nitty and the gritty are the Sheiks' forte. Robinson's "Blue Dreams" is the bluesiest number, but his "Rooster" is the most representative. Hard chording, Garza's rhythmic comping and drummer Steven Nestor's big beat drive this one up and down the blues blocks showing off the new paint job.
(PO Box 187. Clawson, MI 48107. 248-398-6877. www.nocover.net)
An award-winning multi-grooved ensemble, they've won Detroit Blues Band of the Year awards, even though they don't call themselves a blues band. Anyone paying attention wouldn't call them a blues band, either. Guitarist Mark Pasman has had a long running radio blues show, and he and vocalist/bassist Paul Randolph put in time with the Motor City Bluez Project, but they've got more in common with the Neville Brothers. Their take on Jimmy Reed's "Baby What You Want Me To Do" is given a Mudpuppy deep funk treatment, and "Kansas City" never sounded better. They cover the Undisputed Truth's "Smiling Faces," Sly's "Thank You," and Chaka Khan's "You Got The Love." Nope, not a blues band by most definitions. Unquestionably one of the great bands in town, though.
These good fingers have been playing behind Etta James for the past decade, and on this long-awaited follow-up to The Blues Is Now (Viceroots, 1996), Murray and company offer takes on classic organ combos, a brilliant version of Ray Charles' "Rock House" and a take on Albert Collins' "Conversation. Murray went to high school with Robert Cray and calls Collins a mentor. Now based out of Detroit, he has recruited a superb band fronted by vocalist Lenny Watkins that plays the blues with fire. This is the band he plays with in between tours with Etta, and their mutual musical fondness is more than apparent top to bottom.
There are those who would call Mr. Seeley the finest boogie woogie practitioner in the world. For my ears, there's no question. There are 16 reasons to consider him such collected on this self- produced and self-released gem. Great boogie pianists sometimes sound like two pianists at once. Seeley sounds like three. His take on Jack Fina's "Bumble Boogie" is the sort of song that will melt a CD player at 20 paces. He calls Meade Lux Lewis his greatest inspiration. The quotes on the cover ("Just An Incredible Player. My God" -- Chuck Leavell, Rolling Stones; "The best boogie player on the planet" -- Dick Hyman) indicate that he's a pretty big inspiration his own self. When he's not playing the occasional weekend gig in Paris or London, he's been holding down a gig at Charley's Crab, an upscale piano bar in Troy, since the 1970s. The place shakes!
(Bob Seeley. 6287 N. Shore Drive. West Bloomfield, MI 48324-2146. 248-360-1997)
Joe Weaver and
His New Blue Note Orchestra
The Dutch Black Magic label was largely responsible for revitalizing the career of Weaver's lifelong friend Johnnie Bassett. The two worked together in the house band at Fortune Records in Detroit in the 1950s and 1960s. Weaver doesn't play too much piano these days, but his vocals are extraordinary. The opener, "Do You Wanna Work Now," reminds a bit of Red Prysock's "Hand Clappin'," and "Tootsie Roll" is first-class post-war R&B. Given that both tunes are from Weaver's pen, as are the majority of the songs here, just adds to the delight. Many of them are from the old Fortune songbook, and all are given a first-class presentation by Weaver, Bassett, R.J. Spangler, Bill Heid, Keith Kaminski, and Bob Connor. For those of us with a reverence from classic rhythm and blues, this is flat out one of the best recordings out of Detroit --- or anywhere else --- in years.
(3813 CG Amersfoort, The Netherlands)
These don't tell the whole story, of course. Robert Noll, Doug Deming, Randy Volin, Steve Somers, Johnnie Bassett, Kenny Parker, Zoom, Madcat & Kane, Bugs Beddow, Uncle Jessie White, the Boogie Men, Blue Hawaiians, Steve Nardella, Robert Penn, and many, many more Detroit blues artists have recordings worth seeking out. Check out the Detroit Blues Society's website for more info.
--- Mark Gallo
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