This month's What's New column contains an unprecedented three reviews of Kenny Neal / Billy Branch's Double Take CD. The reviews are grouped within each reviewer's contributions.
Double Take (Alligator), an all-acoustic re-release of an album featuring Kenny Neal & Billy Branch, from the French Isabel label, was recorded/produced in France in 1998. It originally came out in Europe in 2003. No music has been added or removed by Alligator, but the CD has been completely re-packaged. Its 60 minutes prove acoustic blues doesn’t mean songs that are slow, sad and boring. Kenny is well-known due to his musical heritage and prolific recording career. Billy hasn’t enjoyed a similar amount of output, but he’ll be no stranger to anyone closely associated with Chicago blues. The credits for the 12 tracks indicate Neal handles more lead vocals. Of the two, Kenny has a far more deep and commanding voice which includes a southern drawl. The credits do not clearly indicate what instruments these musicians perform. Although Kenny is a fine harmonica player, it has been assumed he plays all guitars while Billy handles the harps. Neal wrote three numbers while Branch contributes one. The pair co-wrote the only instrumental on the CD. The harp chugs, churns and then throttles everything in its path on "Going Down Slow." It gets down right ass-kickin’ on "I Just Keep Loving Her" while the guitar rhythm is rumbling and tumbling. Both artists long for the country on separate, original tracks. The two numbers celebrate the joys of rural living. Kenny claims he "don’t need no burglar bars" on "Going To The Country," while Billy simply states, "I was born in the north but my heart was in the south" on "Northern Man Blues." When Muddy Waters performed "Mannish Boy" on his Hard Again album, he named the LP after the way the music made him feel. When Muddy hears the Neal/Branch version of his classic tune, he is going to be one pogo stick-hopping angel. "The Son I Never Knew" is a deep song that makes the listener ponder what life this father and son may have had if they had met and begun a relationship. My first exposure to the song was the electric version on Kenny’s Devil Child album, however; it is far more suited to an acoustic arrangement. This allows the storyteller’s melancholy mood to emit. There are two versions on the disc. On one, Branch performs electrified harp. This modern acoustic blues collection isn’t the same old country blues from the ‘20s & ‘30s. Yes, the disc has its roots in that era, but the tunes are performed in a way that is relevant for today. Overall, the disc showcases more mesmerizing harp than guitar. The biggest drawback is the selected covers will already appear many times in your CD collection. Two finer young-generation bluesmen couldn’t have been found to demonstrate how the blues gets passed from one period to the next. Who knows -- this genuine back-porch rockin’ party may even start a new folk/blues revival. For CDs and information, contact: www.alligator.com.
Remember when "Clapton is God" was scribbled
on London walls when EC first emerged? Surely, similar graffiti can be
found in Enrico Crivellaro’s native Italy. Electro-Fi label chief,
Andrew Galloway says that Enrico is, "the best young guitarist I have
heard in the past year." As a former student of Ronnie Earl, Duke
Robillard and Kenny Burrell, Enrico developed an elegant yet combustible
guitar style. He has been a member of Lester Butler's "13," the James
Harman Band, the Janiva Magness Band and Royal Crown Revue. His 12 track,
55 minute debut album, Key To My Kingdom, will appeal to fans of
jazz and big band in addition to blues guitar fanatics. Although the songs
are primarily covers (only three were penned by Enrico), he has chosen
songs that you probably haven’t heard. Although Enrico gets top billing,
all the musicians contribute significantly and deliver the numbers as true
blues ambassadors. Throughout, Enrico plays sharp, strong, cutting notes,
as on the opening track "You’re In For A Big Surprise." Here, guest star
Finis Tasby sings with plenty of emotion which is echoed in Crivellaro’s
screeching and wailing guitar solo. "Drinkin’ Cheap Champagne" is a Texas
shuffle groove in the mode of Jimmie Vaughan. James Harman guests on this
one and delivers drawling vocals. When "Walkin’ And Walkin’" fades out
after six minutes, you’ll wish the song doubled in length. Undoubtedly,
the highlight of this surprisingly good CD is the four extraordinary
instrumentals. Thanks to Scott Steen’s trumpet and Bruce Katz’s piano,
"Black Jack" goes uptown while experiencing a touch of Dixieland. Enrico’s
guitar reveals a full body presence in the likes of T-Bone Walker and
George Benson. Images of the Peanuts gang come to mind on the swinging
boogie "The ‘In’ Crowd," where Katz steals the show. "Train To Venice" is
smooth and oozing with West Coast jive while "Black Coffee" has the big
city pulse of the Harlem Renaissance. Some hard core blues fans may feel
they’ve been falsely sold a jazz CD while others will admire Crivellaro’s
diversity. This variety is not repeated by the songs sung by Finis. They
sound far too similar. Since the musicians on this disc aren’t Enrico’s
regular band, the songs may be difficult to replicate live. Don’t be put
off because Enrico’s white, young and European and the production favours
his guitar and vocals. You’ll remember this classy and well-rounded CD for
Bruce’s quaking organ and keys, Enrico’s articulate, 1940s jazz guitar,
Finis’ stately vocals and the ebullient instrumentals. Had I reviewed this
disc last year, it would have landed on my top ten list. For CDs, booking
and information, write to: Electro-Fi Records, PO Box 191, LaSalle
Station, Niagara Falls, NY 14304 Tel (416) 251-3036. E-mail:
--- Tim Holek
It’s been quite some time since a duo recording made me shake with delight the way Double Take (Alligator Records), the superb collaboration between guitarist extraordinaire Kenny Neal and harp wizard Billy Branch did. When I first heard they were doing a project together I assumed it was going to be an electric guitar and harp assault by two of modern blues’ best players. I was thrilled to pieces to discover just the opposite. This beauty is completely acoustic and reveals a side to both artists that is only heard on their individual recordings in small quantities. Together they explore the realm of down home country blues re-roasting some quality chestnuts and airing them out to their peak freshness while stirring a few originals into the stew. Trading off vocals throughout, Neal opens this yummy biscuit with a toe-tapping rendering of ”Going Down Slow” that segues into the low key tale of family discord entitled “The Son I Never Knew,” which Neal recorded on his Devil’s Child album in 1989. There are two takes of this piece, with the second wrapping the album up. Either version would have suited this record just fine, as they are very similar and brings up the question as to why both were included. Branch steps into the vocal driver’s seat for a chugging take on ”I Just Keep Loving Her” and a stunning evocation of “My Babe,” on which Kenny plucks out a pleasing amble or two up and down the frets. A pair of laid back Neal compositions, “Early One Morning” and “Going To The Country,” find both of these cats at the top of their game, with Branch bending his drawling harp notes around Neal's finite guitar and vocals. Things get cranked up a few notches as Billy blasts his way through the Sonny Boy Williamson classic “Don’t Start Me To Talking,” then puts you away with his blistering reworking of ”Mannish Boy” that I think would have pleased Muddy to no end. On both of these numbers Branch’s guts and soul are fully on display as he rips through them with both his harp and vocals like a man with a purpose. “Billy & Kenny’s Stomp” is the only instrumental here, and both guys strut their wares to the max for close to five minutes. “Baby Bee” is a loping mid-tempo tune featuring Neal’s throaty vocals and some syrupy picking and strumming offset by Branch’s foray’s into his harp's upper register. Billy’s testifying vocals are at the forefront of “Northern Man Blues,” a somewhat personal testimony by Branch that packs an emotional punch. Double Take is a very down to earth blues record by a pair of artists who have in the past spanned the spectrum from traditional to experimentation but take it back “home” here. Every track captures your interest and does not fall victim to trying to sound like a traditional blues record brought into the modern era. This is a great recording by a couple of fellas who recapture the roots and move them forward with an unbridled passion.
When I had learned Johnny B. Moore had suffered a stroke recently I cringed at the possibility that an album like his third Delmark release, Rockin’ In The Same Old Boat, could be his last. Before I go further, I would like to wish Mr. Moore the speediest of recoveries and the absolute best to him and his family. Johnny B. Moore arrived in Chicago from Clarksdale Mississippi at the young age of 14. After being mentored by Jimmy Reed from the age of eight (eventually sharing a bandstand or two with him) Moore was quickly recognized in the windy city as a promising talent, and cut his teeth sitting in, in various clubs before landing the guitar seat in Koko Taylor’s Blues Machine in 1975 and then venturing out on his own in the mid 1980s. Finding a better blues record than this in 2004 could be a difficult task, as Moore demonstrates his four decades of blues knowledge and rocks your emotions at every turn. This is a straight ahead West Side Chicago blues laced with just a dab of soul etched throughout, and sometimes taking center stage, as it does on the album’s opening number, a cover of Buster Benton’s “Hungry For a Dime,” which sets the stage handsomely for the remaining 12 tunes. Johnny gets right down to business pouring his heart into his gruff vocals in the intro before kicking into high gear, teasing some tenderly sweet licks from his guitar on this melodically energetic bop. One of the album’s two originals, “Broke Man,” follows up with a few thought provoking lyrics with the narrative reflecting his days growing up in the Mississippi Delta, offset with a few stinging riffs. The sweet sounds of ‘60s Chicago soul are evident throughout: ”She Hit Me From The Blind Side,” a smooth as glass ditty with a stunningly melodious solo placed in the middle of it, with ”That’s The Way Love Is” falling into the same vein with Johnny answering each vocal line with some high pitched notes. Moore’s West Side tenacity ignites with full force on covers of “Cut You Loose” and Magic Sam’s ”Looking Good.” Both of these pieces find Johnny growling out the vocals and tearing the lead lines from his guitar with a “this is what it’s all about” attitude. Perhaps the most emotionally charged performance of this record is the poignant heart rendering pleading Moore brings to “Crazy For You,” as he pulls this one from way down deep in his soul. Willie Dixon’s chestnut, “Big Boss Man,” is delightfully re-warmed here, along with Blind Lemon Jefferson’s classic “Matchbox Blues” that finds Moore inserting quite the story into it along with some impressive soloing. The title tune is more than likely familiar as a Bobby ‘Blue’ Bland number, but Johnny makes it all his own with his haunting vocals and fat melodic guitar weavings that intertwine beautifully for what I feel is this album’s standout number. Moore’s only other original, ”I’m A King Bee,” grinds and slides masterfully as Johnny plays some wicked calls and responses with himself. The traditional ”Walkin’ The Streets” follows, conjuring up images of a smoke-filled gin joint close to closing time as Moore’s licks transcend through you. Wrapping things up is a stupendous cover of Joe Williams’ “Baby Please Don’t Go,” which will speak for itself when heard. What is so completely amazing about this album is its realistic personal feel. By that I mean after listening to this record you feel as if you have just heard a set in a small neighborhood club, as it captures the artist at his raw best with no overdubs and the occasional muffed note left in place. The fluid dexterity and versatility that Johnny B. Moore possesses is in abundance as he switches between playing leads to rhythm to fills and will knock you for a loop. I mean this cat is all over the place. Hirotaka Konishi is the rhythm guitarist and holds his own nicely, but I have to wonder if he was even needed. The rhythm section is flawless in the form of Robert “Bass Playin’ Pete” Peterson on bass and Cordell Teague on drums, But make no mistake, Moore overshadows every other musician on this album. This one is about as real as it gets, folks, and if you don’t own a copy of it soon then you will miss out on a blues experience that you will truly regret. A standing ovation for this one!
Jimmy Burns is not a common household name in many blues circles, but after listening to his latest release, Back To The Delta (Delmark), it really should be. If the name is familiar it’s probably because his brother is the great Eddie ”Guitar” Burns. Like so many of his contemporaries back in the ’50s, Jimmy Burns left the Mississippi Delta for Chicago to seek his fortune in the blues at a young age. Fate, being what it is, had other things in mind for him. He changed with the musical scene, working as a vocalist in doo-wop and gospel groups before cutting a few singles as a soul singer in the ’60s, one of which is the collectable “I Really Love You,” before giving up the music business and working as a carpenter and raising a family. Back To The Delta is the result of Jimmy’s yearly pilgrimage back home to keep him in touch with his Delta roots, and combines the tough grittiness of Chicago blues with a down home countrified lightness and simplicity. The album’s title track will aptly demonstrate this, as Burns’ clean picking style sings out robustly alongside his belting but smooth-tempered vocals. This cat can also slide as well; “Stop The Train,” along with a cover of Muddy Waters’ “I Feel Like Going Home,” are a pair of tunes that are chock full of wicked slide riffs, gorgeously strengthened by the slick piano chops of Roosevelt Purifoy, who anchors two separate bands for these sessions. “Red Hot Mamma” is a straight ahead groove that cooks behind some slippery lead solos, as does the hard shuffling pace of “Country Boy In The City.” The lone instrumental, “Groovin’ With Jimmy,” is a swinging breezy bop that features Burns airing out his repertoire of guitar stylings. Set right in the middle of the album, it allows the listeners to catch their breath before knocking it out of them again with the tough as nails mid-tempo shuffle of “Who’s Been Using That Thing.” Jimmy tosses in a lovely acoustic interlude in the form of “All About My Woman,” where his prowess is heard in its rawest form with just his voice and guitar, and “Yonder Comes Miss Rosey” presents more of the same only with band accompaniment and some sugary acoustic slide. A pair of sparkling covers, Sleepy John Estes’ “Someday Baby” and Howlin’ Wolf’s “How Many More Years,” run concurrently and are given superior workouts by Burns’ strong vocals and saucy licks. Closing out the program is “Juke Juke Juked,” a hip shaking boogie that reflects the party atmosphere and good times that can be found in such roadhouse ‘juke joints’ that once dotted the Delta’s landscape in abundance. Back To The Delta blends two musical roots flawlessly without one overshadowing the other, but rather complimenting one another handsomely. Burns song writing and playing do not deter much from the standard blues format and foundations that we’ve become accustomed to, but through his way above-average vocals and crystal-clear playing he injects a certain vibrancy and fresh air crispness into his work that is thoroughly enjoyable over all 16 selections. It’s a coin toss as to which of Jimmy Burns’ talents I enjoyed more on this album, his vocals or his guitar work, as both are superbly elegant. I see a lot of repeated plays for anyone who obtains a copy of this finely crafted record.
--- Steve Hinrichsen
The coarse voice of Chief Schabuttie Gilliame comes thru well-recorded on his brand-new CD, Snakes Crawls At Night (Random Chance Records). The music comes from four sessions of varying musicians in Clarke Rigsby’s Tempe studio in 2001 and ’02, and is produced by the experienced Bob Corritore. The “Chief” is wonderful to see live as he commands an audience. Lucky for us he lives and sometimes appears in the Valley. This disc is sequenced for flow, so the bands intermingle. It first appears by glancing at the playlist that the front-man claims authorship to established titles, but in reality they are all his, different tunes with seemingly familiar names. The cover graphics are interesting. “Come To Me Baby” starts the disc with just the right tempo, the Chief’s vocal definition, a well-toned harp solo from the producer and minimal but grooving guitars from L.A.’s Kirk “Eli” Fletcher (of Charlie Musselwhite’s band) and Rusty Zinn, of Kim Wilson renown. “Too Many Years” conveys melancholy and absurdity in its story, with rich and chordal guitars. “No More Doggin’” is a one-chord vamp which maintains intensity with Phoenix’s Johnny Rapp on guitar as well as Kid Ramos, formerly of the Fabulous Thunderbirds . I also hear Paul Thomas’ stand-up slap bass mixed well. “Happy With You Baby” might sound like a Chuck Berry-type rock, maybe more of another “Chief,” Eddie Clearwater, when the vocal hits. But then Matt Bishop’s piano reiterates images of the duck-walker. “Sugar Daddy” is down in the alley, but not yet to after-hours. Falsetto shrieks punctuate the vocal delivery. “Big-Legged Emma” has a Buckeye, Arizona connection when we hear about the lady subject. The spirited shuffle also contains two distinct guitar solos, both from Junior Watson. Teddy Morgan lays down rhythm guitar. Top it off with a baritone sax solo and horn section-effect; it’s Junior's guitar and the sax in unison. A “muddy” guitar sound opens “Lie To Me.” I first wondered if it was (Muddy) Waters-influenced Buddy Reed (who has spent a lot of time on the Phoenix scene, and who actually is on second guitar on this track) but it is the great Louisiana Red, whose guitar style is that of Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup. The cut has a two-beat feel with drum brushes underlining. We’re getting closer to those after-hours on “Snakes Crawls At Night,” somewhere between the South and Chicago here probably because of excellent intuitive drumming from Chico Chism. Johnny Rapp opens the number with raw guitar, whereas Kid Ramos plays the solo. A solid shuffle, “Willie Brown Blues,” continues the momentum with the Chief referring to a pretty well-known figure in blues lore. The burning guitar is definitive Johnny Rapp, the studio catching him at a perfect moment. The presentation concludes with an hypnotic, kind of calypso/Latin thing, “Lowdown Dirty Shame.” It is fairly down in tempo and is an outpouring cry of abuse before another sax solo and I’d guess Junior Watson instead of Teddy Morgan taking the guitar solo. Last reminder from the singing sage as the disc fades: “Your gonna reap just what you sow...” In 1983 when I first was introduced to the Chief, it was reported he was from Ethiopia. Producer Bob Corritore clarifies in the disc’s liner notes that he was born in 1925 in Egypt. It goes on to say that the Chief considers “voodoo” his religion. He once told me directly that “mojo” IS a religion. So there are variations in local legend but certainly nothing to nitpick over. You get the idea. What’s at stake is the character of his music. Once it starts he is instantly back to his blues schooling in Arkansas and Louisiana. I’m not convinced there is a real “Phoenix” blues sound, but this would be close and serves as a document to help us get there. The backing musicians may be giving us more of a West-coast blues flavor for the fare. A real amalgam with local environmental influences. Producer Corritore can be justifiably proud of a job well-done, bringing attention to a natural soul deserving of wider recognition in the persona of Chief Schabuttie Gilliame. This disc would go well at any party or on a trip of any duration. Available at http://www.randomchancerecords.com.
--- Tom Coulson
The cynic within me is thinking that all this fuss about the Year of the
Blues will bring nothing in the long run, but I just might be wrong.
Witness the release of two new blues records with enough appeal and pop
savvy that they just might allure record buyers to come to the blues after
all, coming as they do on the heel of the PBS series. Neither of these
“blues stars” is truly the real thing, but if they manage to turn some new
fans to the Delta or Chicago blues of yore, they’ll have accomplished a
lot. The first of these high profile releases is Me and Mr. Johnson,
Clapton’s latest album, a collection of Robert Johnson covers done with
style and restraint, which was released by Duck/Reprise Records, after
much hype, on Tuesday March 30th. Of course, Clapton is not new to the
blues, nor to the Robert Johnson canon; similarly, whole albums devoted to
the music of Johnson have appeared with regularity in recent years,
including Peter Green’s and John Hammond’s contributions, plus a couple of
“various artists” tributes. The trick was for Clapton to show his profound
reverence for Johnson without copying either the originals nor the many
versions of these songs; this explains the absence (wise choice) of such
warhorses as “Sweet Home Chicago” and “I’ll Believe I’ll Dust my Broom,”
which have been done to death. Nor will you find the couple of Johnson
numbers that are already clearly associated with Clapton, “Cross Road
Blues” (which he did with Cream) and “Malted Milk” (on the million-selling
Unplugged). The other obvious pitfall to avoid was to overly tinker with
the arrangements, and this is probably where this record succeeds most
brilliantly. With Billy Preston on keys, Jerry Portnoy on harp and fellow
guitarists Andy Fairweather-Low and Doyle Bramhall II, Clapton and
co-producer Simon Climie have chosen to go electric, but to try and
recreate the late ’50s, early ’60s Chicago ensembles rather than the
bloated ’70s and later British-inspired white blues-rockers. The band
rocks joyously, but without any excess; no soloist turns the volume up
just before his solo – everything is done as it would have been in a South
Side joint. As a musician, Clapton has evidently internalized this music,
and he sounds perfectly happy and in control. It’s Clapton the singer that
loses a few points in my book; you see, if Robert Johnson went on to
become such a myth, it’s not because of little ditties such as “Sweet Home
Chicago” or “They’re Red Hot,” but rather because, on such stark numbers
as “Me and The Devil Blues,” “If I had Possession over Judgment Day” or
“Hell Hound on my Trail,’ he sounded positively possessed, suffering from
acute paranoia or absolute fear of impending doom. It is dark songs such
as these that ensured Johnson his place in legend, and it is on such songs
that you can hear Clapton’s approach’s limits. Try as he might, he CANNOT
sound half as tormented as the singer to whom he pays tribute. On these
three songs, maybe the only ones that truly matter, he sounds like he’s
imitating life (or hell on earth), rather than living it. Still, newcomers
to the blues will be tremendously entertained, and, who knows, won’t even
feel this shortcoming – after all, Johnson’s world died with him, no?
Recommended nonetheless. (Kudos to the album cover artist, Peter Blake, by
the way.) www.repriserecords.com
--- Benoît Brière
It's hard to believe that it was October 2002 that I reviewed Roy Robert's last CD, Burnin' Love, a release that I found quite listenable, just as I found this new release, Daylight With A Flashlight (Rock House Records), to be. With basically the same lineup as that release and a bevy of new songs, Roberts delivers moving tunes about life and love. Many of the songs open with Roberts' B.B. King-influenced guitar work, and his very mellow vocals add a velvety sheen to the proceedings. Coming off his Living Blues "Producer of the Year" award, as well as winning their "Artist Most Deserving of Wider Recognition," success was rapidly approaching. Sporting a newly improved web site at www.rockhouserecords.com, you will see that he has quickly achieved success, having released critically acclaimed albums by Eddie Floyd (who did an incredible set at the San Francisco Blues Festival in 2003 ... he's still "Knocking On Wood" after all these years), "The Stoop Down Baby" man Chick Willis, Floyd Miles and Priscilla Price, and newcomers Tommy Thomas and Patti Benson. He's opened a new blues club in Winston-Salem, North Carolina called Roy's Place, and his 2003 worldwide tour was a great success. Way to go, Roy! Daylight With A Flashlight contains memorable songs such as "I Want To Love You," and the Bobby Bland-sounding "Your Troubling Mind," a close cousin to "I'll Take Care Of You". Just listen to Roberts' soulful guitar opening this song, and the beautiful instrumental "Anniebell," dedicated to his late mother, allowing us to hear Roberts' prowess on the B-3 organ, and you'll know why he has received all these recent accolades. A fine release by a great bluesman and one worthy of your consideration. Oh by the way, there are real musicians and horns galore. What more could one ask for?
I have waited to write the review of The Soul Sessions (Scurve Records) because I wanted to be sure all the hype I had read would not influence my decision. In case you haven't read about Joss Stone, she is a 16-year-old white British singer who has been compared to Aretha Franklin. Of course that hype raised many an eyebrow, including mine. Stone managed to hook up with the legendary Betty Wright ("Clean Up Woman") in Miami, Florida, and with the aid of Wright's production and contributions by the well respected TK Records session (and solo) musicians such as Latimore, Willie "Little Beaver" Hale & Timmy Thomas, the hype started pouring in. She has been hailed as the new Aretha Franklin, and gets media spreads that would make even Aretha envious. Well now it's my turn to offer my opinion, and I must say she sounds pretty soulful to me. The question that has arisen in many articles is that if under the same circumstances, a sixteen year old black singer had made the same album, would it have gotten the same hype? Probably not, but taking this album at face value, it's pretty damn good and as I said before, pretty damn soulful. She opens the session with a slow version of the Joe Simon classic "The Chokin' Kind", and it is downright effective. Also effective is the way she nails the funky "Super Duper Love" and the cover of The White Stripes "Fell In Love With A Boy" works real well too. She also does a great job on the Bettye Swann tune "Victim Of a Foolish Heart". Her version of Laura Lee's "Dirty Man" sounds a bit contrived, but perhaps it is because it is hard to believe a 16-year-old girl has lived the lyrics to this song. The Soul Brothers Six song "Some Kind Of Wonderful" is just that --- wonderful, as is the Carla Thomas tune "I've Fallen In Love With You," with its full string section and background singers. Now comes the real test, Aretha's "All The King's Horses," and the girl pulls it off. Better than Aretha? No, but Stone certainly lives up to the expectations. The CD ends with a fine version of The Isley Brothers "For The Love Of You-Parts 1&2." Worth all the hype? Actually, yes! It will be interesting to see how her sophomore effort will fare, or will this be a one shot wonder. By the way, her upcoming show at The House Of Blues in Chicago has been sold out for weeks in advance. Looking forward to #2.
My thanks go out once again to Grapevine Records for another fine issue of classic southern soul. Last month I reviewed three wonderful issues from this label; Just The Beginning, from Phillip Mitchell, continues with the same quality that made those so appealing. All of the tracks on this album were recorded in the early- to mid-'70s, mostly at Muscle Shoals Sound, a new studio opened by four disgruntled members of Fame's in house rhythm section. Jimmy Johnson, Barry Beckett, Roger Hawkins and David Hood were all veterans of the sound we now fondly call Southern Soul, and successfully carried on that tradition for many years. Known for his producing and songwriting as well as his singing, this release focuses on 20 songs he penned as demos during those early years. This in no way diminishes his talent as a singer, as his two albums for Atlantic and two for Ichiban were releases that focused on his vocal prowess. When history is written, though, it will be all those songs he penned for Millie Jackson, Bobby Womack, Mary Wells, Dorothy Moore, Candi Staton, Little Milton, Percy Sledge and Mel & Tim, to name just a few, for which he will be remembered. Bobby Womack recorded Mitchell's "If You Can't Give Her Love, Give Her Up" on his Facts Of Life LP and a couple for his Home Is Where The Heart Is LP, including that title track. Mitchell's "Starting All Over Again" gave cousins Mel & Tim a monster hit for Stax Records in 1972. Millie Jackson hit it big with "It Hurts So Good," which became a top three R&B hit in 1973 and was featured in the movie "Cleopatra Jones." As a writer Mitchell's songs deal with life, love and day to day experiences that everyone can relate to. To quote "How Can I Go On Without You," one of the songs on this release; "...Each night I lie awake thinking what happened to this love of ours? Girl, I've even started drinking to help me through these lonely hours that I spend thinking about you, How can I go on without you? How can I make it without you?..." Other songs, such as "Here I Am Again," "Hangin' On By A Thread" and "Be Strong Enough To Hold On," all follow the melancholy thread throughout. Oh, by the way, did I mention his two albums for Ichiban were titled Desolation and Loner. Great, legendary stuff. A must purchase if you love those classic early Millie Jackson and Bobby Womack LPs.
--- Alan Shutro
Vocalist Louise Hoffsten is a big deal in her Swedish homeland and reportedly has a closet full of gold and platinum records for her pop, jazz and folk releases. She just recently came to record the blues, though it has been a style of music for which she has had an abiding affection for years. That fondness became more real through personal heartbreak (being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis and a divorce) that inspired an award-winning book which she entitled, simply, “Blues,” a state of affairs that best described her mindset. The book (written in Swedish with no interpretations yet available) was issued with a bonus CD. Memphis International Records has released that CD, Knackebrod Blues, independent of the book. It’s an extraordinary record on which she’s backed by a powerhouse combo of Staffan Astner (guitar), Backa Hans Eriksson (bass) and Christer Jansson (drums, percussion). The result is mesmerizing in its diversity and moody emotionality. On the rockin’ opener, Frankie Miller’s “The Seduction of Sweet Lorraine,” she sings with a sassy, swaggering authority and gutsy conviction over Astner’s raw electric guitar and seems determined to grab the listener’s attention with a bombastic roar. It isn’t a tempo setter. It’s merely an aspect of the artist. She isn’t one to plop into the easy chair of predictability. She and her mates follow with Lightnin’ Hopkins as you’ve never heard him interpreted. Over military drum and sparse electric guitar on the Lightnin’ Hopkins classic “Baby You Can Tear My Clothes,” Hofften’s vocals take on a far away, down-the-hallway quality which gives the tune a mystical feel. It’s somehow a uniquely Scandinavian perspective, reminding a bit of the band Long Dog. It’s a sound that is ethereal and solidly rooted at the same time. She and the band inject Johnny Watson’s “Love to Love You” with chops fairly dripping with funky Texas dust. On her own “Belly Up Blues” she reminds of Toni Price, singing “You drank all my sweet love/ emptied my cup/ picked this poor heart clean/’til it went belly up.” Man, that’s the blues! The version offered of “I Pity the Fool” is an angry one. Louise is pissed and she wants you to know it. The band is on fire to match her mood. The atmosphere then drops low and after-hours on Memphis Slim’s “Guess I’m A Fool,” sung like classic country rather than a blues. The vocal is delicate, gossamer, yet wholly effective, much like the Cowboy Junkies’ Margo Timmins. Blind Willie Johnson’s “God Don’t Ever Change,” on which Astner’s stellar guitar work serves as the only accompaniment, is given a brilliant reading that calls to mind Rory Block. It is a song in which she immerses herself. She doesn’t merely sing it. She moves in for a solid four minutes and by god owns the piece. The reworked rendering of “I Just Want to Make Love to You” is transcendent and may be the most extraordinary piece on the disc. With wispy vocals, trembling guitar, brushes and bass, it is reshaped as a torch song. It has something of a David Lynch/Twin Peaks aura. She blows exquisite harp, seduces with low moans and groans, and exudes more sex attitude than this warhorse has seen in … well, probably ever. The tempo kicks back up for a shuffle on “Slow Down,” the Larry Williams/Beatles classic, then way back down for “Weak Brain, Narrow Mind,” a Wiilie Dixon obscurity with spectacular guitar work that reminds of Chris Isaak’s “Blue Hotel.” Hoffsten doesn’t have a particularly powerful voice. She doesn’t bring muscle to the studio. She’s not a shouter. She’s about nuance and being completely in command of whatever she sings. On the heavily Hendrixian version of John Lee Hooker’s “Serves You Right To Suffer,” she takes control of the song without attempting to overpower. Music like this just doesn’t come down the road too often. The band is drop-dead Experience-powered and Hoffsten owns it, replete with Hendrix-style whispers ala “Are You Experienced?” Nothing could possibly follow a song that intense but a back porch slide guitar ditty. On Lightnin’ Hopkins’ “Darling, Do You Remember Me?,” Hoffsten is again accompanied solely by guitar. It’s beautifully done, a gorgeous number. Of course it is. This will be released a couple of days in front of the Handy awards. Next year, I predict it will be a nominee.
Blues 2.0 (Electro-Fi) is one of the most sho’ ‘nuff blues albums of the past year. Fruteland Jackson is raw, stark, unadorned and deep out of the tradition like no one this side of Guy Davis or Taj Mahal. The opening title piece is introduced by a big booming bass drum, over which Jackson sings a capella, à la the chain gang or lining track songs out of the Alan Lomax catalog. “I get up early,” he sings on beat with the pounding drum, “I’m a modern day slave/honest hard work gonna get me an early grave.” On the updated take on Bo Carter’s “My Pencil Don’t Write No More,” on which he takes co-authorship credit Fruteland shows his artful double entendre skills. He’s joined here by Alec Fraser on a tuba-style bass that injects the piece with a dab more authenticity. For “Laura Marie” (“You sho got some fine barbecue”) he is joined by Mel Brown on piano. “Long Distance Love Affair,” is highlighted by superb interplay between guitar, Ken Whiteley’s ringing mandolin and Fraser’s percussion. The sound is full and infectious. “I Wonder” is a slice of stark raving reality with lines like “I wonder if my baby would forgive me for my sins … she dressed me, fed me, kept my wallet green/but I was mean and greedy/when I left her she was bloody and broke.” It’s a fine example of the writing style that Jackson brings to the project. He’s not merely a wonderful singer and acoustic guitarist, but a fine songwriter, as well. “Moon Man Rag,” with Ken Whiteley’s banjo, is straight out of the 1930s and “I Can Still Rock and Roll,” with Mel Brown on electric guitar, is a poignant look at the aging process we all do our best to sidestep. He sings “Who is this man staring back at me?/This is not the face I want to see.” I hear ya, Fruteland. Chris Whiteley’s trumpet gives “How Could We Live Without Love” a texture that calls to mind “St. James Infirmary.” The take on “Big Road Blues,” the only out and out cover here, reminds of the Bonnie Raitt/Paul Butterfield version. “Lucky Lady” is a pretty piece out of the Ted Hawkins bag and “Sometimes Bad Man Blues,” again with Mel Brown on guitar, is one of the standout pieces on the set. “Blues On The Banjo” speaks to his affection for the style, and the closing “The Lonely Traveler” is dedicated to the late Jimmy Lee Robinson. A fine collection by a talented man who deserves a whole lot more recognition.
--- Mark E. Gallo
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Revised: April 15, 2004 - Version 1.02
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