Blues Bytes

April 2005

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What's New

Denise LaSalleThe great Denise LaSalle is back with her second release on the Ecko label, Wanted, and her stamp is everywhere as the quality of songs, production and inclusion of real musicians will attest. The lady has written six of the ten songs and added her revision to another. From the opening "Snap, Crackle and Pop," a coochie song, where Denise explains things to Theodis Ealey, Marvin Sease, Mel Waiters and Bobby Rush about what it takes to please a woman, all with a lot of "lick it where you stick it" comments. And I thought the only things that snapped, crackled and popped were my Rice Krispies. Live and learn. That educational track is followed by "The Thrill Is On Again," a direct relative of the B.B. King classic. Great vocals and lyrics that we've learned to expect from Denise. The John Ward-Raymond Moore songwriting team contribute two fine songs, "They Made a Blues Fan Out Of Me" and the excellent "It Was A House Until You Made It A Home," which was previously recorded a few years ago by Bill Coday. Denise's own mid-paced "The Love You Threw Away" is a fine addition, as is her "Who Needs An Enemy With A Friend Like You," directed at a back-stabbing friend. It's even got a little rapping by Ms. LaSalle. The CD ends on a high note with a remake of "Bone It Like You Own It," originally recorded by Barbara Carr but with revised lyrics by Denise. Great stuff. We've been listening to Denise LaSalle since her 1972 Westbound hit, "Trapped By a Thing Called Love," a tune that still gets a lot of airplay and is the signature song of her live show. We then followed her to ABC where she recorded the classic LP "The Bitch Is Bad," circa 1977. The early '80s saw her moving on to Malaco Records where she recorded no less than ten LPs. She tried her hand at a couple of releases on her own Ordena label, and then in 2002 she moved on to Ecko Records where she now resides. Certainly one of the true legends among female soul/blues singers and a major contributor to the world of southern soul. This new release shows that even after 33 years of great recordings, there still some sass in the old girl.

Solomon BurkeWell, the new Solomon Burke CD is here and everything I found wrong with his last CD, Don't Give Up On Me, reviewed here in September 2002, is right with this CD, Make Do With What You Got (Shout Factory). Finally, we have a CD representative of Burke today. Those expecting a throwback to the glorious '60s Atlantic years might be a bit disappointed, but I bet even those old school fanatics will find much to love here. We are treated to great horns, a veteran lineup of musicians led by guitarists Ray Parker Jr. and Reggie Young, and the wonderful Eddie "Blue" Towns on piano. To quote Burke in the liner notes "The making of this recording is all about living, learning, listening and stepping into the future." What a mighty step we have taken here. The only track I found hard to take was the opening one, a rocked out version of the Coco Montoya "I Need Your Love In My Life." It just doesn't fit well with the overall feel of the remaining tracks. The balance of this release is a potpourri of great songwriters, great songs and the great Solomon Burke at his finest.The equally great Bob Dylan is represented here by "What Good Am I" from his Oh Mercy album. My favorite track, and the one most mentioned by fans, is the Robbie Robertson track, "It Makes No Difference." With a great spoken intro, this is a glowing example of how a great song can retain it's greatness when recorded in any genre of music. This was originally recorded by The Band on their Northern Lights, Southern Cross LP in a much different sounding version. "Let Somebody Love Me" shows the power of Burke's voice in all its gospel-influenced glory. The only self penned track is the slow burner "After All These Years," resplendent with its background voices, spoken interlude and its wonderful lyrics of a loving relationship. Van Morrison's "At The Crossroads" is followed by "I Got The Blues" by the Rolling Stones (Sticky Fingers), that had to have Mick Jagger smiling when he heard this version. A Dr. John tune follows "Make Do With What You Got" and the CD closes with a moving version of the Hank Williams "Wealth Won't Save Your Soul," which can be found on many Williams compilations. This is a great closing track to one of this year's finest releases. I've listened to this CD many times and it gets better with each listen. Of course, I start it with track two.

Lee Shot WilliamsThe veteran Lee Shot Williams was born 5/21/38 in Lexington, Mississippi. At a young age, he got the nickname "Shot" from his mother, owing to his fondness for wearing suits and dressing up as a "big shot." Williams grew up with guitar player Little Smokey Smothers and knew his older brother Big Smokey Smothers. Williams' stepsister was Arlean Brown, who recorded some great sides in Chicago with Little Mac Simmons. Her Blues In The Loop LP is a highly sought after collector's LP and one that needs to be reissued on CD. Per the All Music Guide site, Williams moved to Detroit in 1954 and to Chicago in 1958. He rejoined Little Smokey Smothers there and got to know other Chicago blues legends, including Magic Sam and Howlin' Wolf. Williams began singing with Smokey's band in 1960 and a few years later joined Magic Sam's band as a vocalist. In 1962, he recorded his first singles for Chicago's Foxy label and then moved on to several other labels, including King/Federal. His 1964 recording "Welcome To The Club" was a hit in Chicago. It was later covered by Little Milton for Checker Records in 1965. Another regional hit, "I Like Your Style," came out in 1969 and was later covered by Junior Parker. After joining up with guitarist Earl Hooker, he had his first experience on the road as part of a touring band in the mid-'60s, playing around the South. He later appeared on shows with Little Milton and Bobby Bland. Moving into the '90s, he recorded an excellent CD for the Dutch Black Magic label, titled Cold Shot. This CD proved to be a turning point in his career. The album was voted the best blues album by Living Blues' reader's poll in 1995. It included a remake of his classic "Drop You Laundry Baby (I Believe I'm In Love)." He has since moved on to Ecko Records and we now have his fifth release for them, the excellent Nibble Man (Ecko). It contains a handful of excellent new tunes, including the hilarious "Ease On Down In The Bed" with Williams giving step by step instructions to all you lovers out there. It even has a radio edit, so I presume that this is the one they're pushing. The title song "I'm A Nibble Man" is another possibility for some spins on the radio. Lots of party songs like "Just Another Hole In The Wall," "Ghetto Party" and "Party Woman" set the tone for the balance of this release. And yes, there are even a few real musicians, horns and background singers. Another fine effort by all concerned and arguably his finest Ecko release to date.

--- Alan Shutro

A Deeper Blue (Severn) by the Bruce Katz Band features: hip and cool '60s go-go grooves, Texas shuffles and rock and roll. Like an organ at a classic ballpark, they are all wrapped around the signature sound of Katz’s B3. Throughout, Katz’s organ is as rich and full as an Australian Shiraz wine while his piano’s gypsy blood freely journeys the upper register. The disc is a reunion of sorts, but none are greater than the seven year realignment with guitarist Ronnie Earl. On "Yeah, Maybe," Earl rips through a series of highly distinguishable and precisely timed guitar notes. "Poptop" warms up the audience, gets their adrenaline pumping and leaves them salivating for more. Katz hypnotizes you into a deep trance on "Go Home!" and Michael Williams’ big, fat, cranking guitar tone awakens you from the stupor. Guitar and harp have ruled blues for nearly a century. On A Deeper Blue, Katz champions the way for the B3 to have its place in roots music. All 13 songs come across as written/performed by musicians who have studied music at an advanced level and are capable of putting theory into practice. This 65-minute, all-instrumental CD may not win awards since most of the songs come across as loose jams.

EG KightEG Kight’s history includes gospel music, melting for Elvis, traveling, fainting over The Beatles, cutting country albums, and finally, finding the blues. This Dublin, Georgia, singer / songwriter / guitarist was the only independent artist featured on the initial NARM/BMA Get The Blues sampler. On Takin’ It Easy (Blue South, you’ll feel instantly connected to the relaxed songs and their adult, contemporary, pop grooves. "When You Were Mine" will have you daydreaming about lost loves. If Hollywood hears the song, it is sure to end up in a movie. "Can’t Blame Nobody But Me" and "Peach Pickin’ Mama" showcase Kight’s southern roots. The former combines County & Western with Gospel while the latter was inspired by Delta blues. On the latter song, the peach isn’t afraid to proclaim her fruit tastes good. "I’ll Believe It When I Feel It" features sensitive backing vocals. The chord progressions on "Nothin’ Ever Hurt Me" are blues-based. Here, Michael Boyette plays a lovely piano solo. "I Don’t Wanna Start Over" features a jazzy rhythm with these words of advice (“give your man good loving / fasten his seat belt tight / then you’ll have a ride that lasts all through your life.”) Every working man’s dream comes true on "I Ain’t Got No Business Doin’ Business Today." Only experienced vocalists can handle the pressure of performing solo. Listen to this Georgia songbird’s confidence exude on "Stay Awhile," where she is accompanied only by Lee Anderson’s guitar. This is healing music at its finest. Clean production ensures each instrument gets equal levels in the mix. Kight may only believe in love when she feels it, however, she always believes in her music.

--- Tim Holek
Freelance Journalist/Photographer

Jukin’, jiving and generally getting down with your funky bad self are the tall order for Malkum Gibson and the Mighty Juke Band on their latest release Hoodoo Blues (Whata’ Records). Gibson, the harmonica playing lead singer honed his mouth harp chops as part of the duo Malkum and Chris, who spread their infectious brand of acoustic blues throughout the country for more than two decades and had the godfather of the blues, B.B. King, produce their first release. Leaving the acoustic world behind, Gibson serves up some flavorful electric blues allowing his harp to brand another style of blues with his own stamp. Fattening up this sound on the majority of the tunes we have Gary “Guitar” Williams on lead, John Hack supplying the bottom and Jake “The Snake” Shumaker slapping the skins. Most of the tunes (total of 12) focus on love lost, love gained and drinking (which is expected, this being a blues recording and all) with all the songs written or co-written by Gibson. Gibson and the Mighty Jukes get things cooking right from the first cut with "I Love the Way You Everything," beginning with a quick flourish of the harp sound you’ll come to know very well throughout the rest of Hoodoo Blues. The Jukes are extremely tight, and propel this great listening disc with tunes like "Dixie Pike" and "Bottomshelf Whiskey," the latter tune chuggin’ along like a good feelin’ freight train. Take a listen and you will be very pleased with Malkum Gibson and the Mighty Jukes Band’s version of the "Hoodoo Blues."

--- Bruce Coen

If there ever was a wandering minstrel/troubadour still to be found in the blues it is unquestionably Harry Manx. West Eats Meet (Dog My Cat Records) is his latest offering that continues to showcase Manx’s unique talent of melding the rhythms and structures of East Indian ragas with country/folk flavored blues for a sound that is singularly his own --- an unusually different concept that works famously over ten original numbers and two covers. Listening to this record is sure to stir the romanticist and dreamer in everyone who has the pleasure of hearing it, as Manx’s exceptional song writing is bested only by his rich smooth baritone vocals and his use of diverse instruments such as the mohan veena (20 stringed sitar) and tamboura alongside lap steel,banjo and harmonica. The accompaniment is sparse throughout this album, with only occasional tabla drums and keyboards added to the above mentioned instrumentation. In places you will hear some absolutely lovely background vocals, as well as harmonies, provided by newcomer Emily Braden and Australian trio The Heavenly Lights. Listen closely for Ms. Braden though, as her voice is remarkable. To choose highlights is a difficult task, as every track on this tasty record deserves a mention. You surely can’t go wrong with the opening cover of Sonny Boy Williamson’s “Help Me,” which features some slick harp and picking by Manx, giving it a down home yet big city feel all at once. Harry’s vocals capture center stage on ”Make Way For The Living,” a soft spoken number whose beautiful background harmonies led by the sweet warbling of Emily Braden lighten and brighten a number that could easily be mistaken for having dark and dismal overtones. The following tune, ”The Great Unknown,” is equally lush in harmony and lyrical content while pondering the unforeseen future. Manx gives the mohan veena a proper workout on the instrumental “Forgive And Remember,” accompanied only by Niel Golden on tabla drums. Golden's work will blow your doors off on the following cover of ”Sittin’ On Top Of The World.” This familiar standard has new life breathed into it as never before; it's presented as an Indian/bluegrass banjo raga complete with silky three part harmony by The Heavenly Lights. The tale of one man’s encounter, denial and finally acceptance of ‘old man death’ is fascinatingly outlined on ”That Knowing Look Of Fate.”  Although a bit grim, this number is one of the best that Harry has ever penned. The impressive upbeat ballad, “Tough And Tender,” reminds us to know a good thing when we see it, and allows Emily Braden to really stretch her vocal pipes to their fullest on this broken-hearted love song. The best tune of this collection is the laidback but heartstring tugging “Something Of Your Grace.” If you thought Harry was a good songwriter before, wait until you wrap your ears around this one. What makes Harry Manx’s music so appealing is his ability to tell you an entire story in the space of about four minutes, much like another artist also ironically named Harry (Chapin) who had the same gift. West Eats Meet is about as close to flawless as an album as they come. It’s one of those rare jewels that surprises you upon the first listen and grows on you with every subsequent spin. On a scale of 1-10, this one is a 20.

Tom Jones and Jools HollandHow many of you consider Tom Jones a blues singer? A show of hands please ... hmmm that’s what I thought. As shocking as it may seem, when he wasn’t singing the commercial hits that have made women throw their underwear at him during his concerts for the past five decades, Jones was laying down a blues track or two, most of which were not well received, except in Europe and are long out of print.
If you’ve ever been fortunate enough to attend one of his concerts, you might have caught him giving first class original treatments to a few very recognizable blues standards. A legendary collaborative record with piano player extrordinaire / bandleader / producer / talk show host Jools Holland, simply titled Tom Jones & Jools Holland (Radar Records), captures the two at their stripped down, rawest best. This is by no means an album for the weak of heart, because these two fellas let it all hang out with the nasty stuff that our parents didn’t want us listening to while we were growing up. Supported at times by a 15-piece band, the pair pay homage to the greatest music on the planet with 19 numbers, most of which are covers. The album ignites with the driving beat of the co-written original, “Life's Too Short (To Be With You)" and just plain wears you out until the superb closing cover of Jerry Lee Lewis’ ”End Of The Road.” In between, this record is packed with high energy arrangements and performances of some great blues standards and a few tunes that might surprise you. Did you ever think you would hear Tom Jones cover tunes such as “200 Lbs. of Heavenly Joy,” “St. James Infirmary Blues,” “My Babe,” or “Linda Lu?” Cover them he does, and way more than just adequately, I might add. The raw emotion and pure soul that the man puts into every tune he tackles is what makes this album so completely enjoyable. The above mentioned tunes will all make your brains leak out of your ears, but there is indeed more to this record than a few familiar tunes. A couple of co-penned numbers, ”Baptism By Fire” and “Odd Man Out,” will undoubtedly catch your attention with their catchy arrangements and sparking lyrics. There are quite a few numbers that stand head and shoulders above the rest ... and with good reason.  Mainly, Jones belting out the vocals like his life depended on it and Holland playing his fingers to the nub on the black and whites. A prime example of this would be the mini-medley ”Good Morning Blues / One O’ Clock Jump” that is so hot your ear lobes may glow. A cover of Huey Smith’s ”Roberta” will have the same effect, as will the rolling boogy-ing treatment of Big Joe Turner's “Sally Suzas.” However, you will have to wait until track six for the grand prize, a cover of “Slow Down” that will either get you up and moving in ways you didn’t think you could anymore or leave you a sweating, panting mess from the sheer energy Jones injects into this number. When you  put a pair of well-seasoned pros together and let them loose with the music they grew up on, the results can either be phenomenal or disastrous. Tom Jones & Jools Holland is unquestionably the former. This is one red hot record, full of surprises and fun. You really don’t want to miss out on this one. However, at the time of this writing this remarkable album was a little difficult to find. I had to order it as an import as it had not been released outside of Europe, but it is well worth the couple of extra dollars. This one should be on the top of your shopping list.

--- Steve Hinrichsen

Ronnie Earl and Duke RobillardA focused, two-guitar album The Duke Meets The Earl (Stony Plain) from Ronnie Earl and Duke Robillard contains guitar playing so substantive it’s scary. I had to turn it off after two tracks just to process for a moment. Let’s use that moment to talk about these guitarists. Duke formed the swing/jump group Roomful Of Blues in the ‘60s and, when he moved on, Earl replaced him after adequate grooming. Today neither men are household names in either blues or jazz, but are underground guitar heroes to those in-the-know. This album is another in the Canadian “Stony Plain” label album series devoted to multi-guitar virtuosity. And with availability on-line, I wonder if we could find them in-store retail. Suffice it to say, they look like labors of love, much of it attributable to Robillard. This disc I first sampled in mono and swore I knew the difference in the guitarists sounds: one trebly and raw, the other fluid and T-Bone Walker-like. Wrong. Once the liners pointed out that Ronnie Earl plays in one channel and Duke the other uniformly throughout the album, they fooled me. Then I wished Duke would have provided better rhythm guitar while Ronnie soloed. Robillard is one of the few equally gifted at rhythm, as well as lead, guitar. Normally you can hear about four different styles in a single of his solos, and it’s all natural, not forced. As for rhythm, he can do Freddie Green to a tee (but not on this album). All solos are devoted to the guitarists, but the band still dazzles as a solid foundation (I believe Duke’s current touring backup band). Add to them guest artists Mighty Sam McClain on vocals on one track and organist Jimmy McGriff on two! The slow blues tracks are mighty extended for maximum mood and Duke himself provides three vocals. Only one, however, stands up. Guitar, not always vocal, is his talent. The album was culminated from several sessions recorded in Massachusetts, Maine and Duke’s own studio at home in Rhode Island. (Yes, I know, not a blues or jazz Mecca). There are noticeable ripples in the uniformity of the disc sound as a result, like too much echo on Robillard’s guitar in one instance. But these are a couple of the swinging-ist guitar Yankees I’ve ever heard. They’ve each recorded a lot as leaders and sidemen over the years, and any of their respective product is recommended. In summary, The Duke Meets The Earl disc has Ronnie Earl’s playing coming out ahead. Duke, though great, doesn’t quite measure up to his live performances or other album comparisons.

Here’s a guy receiving widespread attention as a serious, young, white blues artist, which may only be uncommon these days in Jimbo Mathus’ home base of Clarksdale, Mississippi. This is the town now known to the mainstream musical public as the spot where actor Morgan Freeman “saved” its regional blues by opening a juke joint / restaurant, “Ground Zero.” Nowadays, tourists flock to the site to experience what it might have felt like to be “black and intoxicated on a Saturday night” during the heyday of the South’s blues. From a blues purist standpoint, something seems wrong about seeing the cable TV food show “Inside Dish with Rachel Ray” broadcasting from the site, showing stiff, white tourists trying to let their hair down. Something felt right, though, when NPR radio broadcast live from the same site on New Year’s Eve 2004 with the music of Jimbo Mathus. The sounds emanating from the heart of the Delta, and indeed the United States that evening, did Clarksdale blues proud regardless of origin. The guitarist / vocalists main claim to date is as former second guitarist for Buddy Guy. Jimbo has also toured the country recently, making new blues fans at his destinations. He performs regularly live on the air from KFFA, Helena Arkansas, still the home of the daily blues show King Biscuit Time. And now this disc, Knockdown South (Knockdown South Records), documents that sound. Recorded in ‘04 at Delta Recording Service (which Mathus himself started --- I think in the old converted WROX radio studios), he names the people backing him as “The Clarksdale Rhythm” without their instruments listed. I recognize drummer Darin Dortin from Memphis’ Blues Foundation and Cedric Burnside, (R.L.’s son and also a drummer), and the Black Diamond Heavies, obviously from the Memphis club on Beale St. of the same name. There is a prominent drone to this music, not unlike R.L. Burnside’s. Mathus borrows electronic elements and sampling from urban contemporary music, but is still electric country at the blues center. You’ll hear a little steel guitar, one instance of organ against slide guitar, and three acoustically driven tracks. The vocal drawl has a detectible laid-back regional accent. Every entry on the disc is original. It’s lazy, yet tight and hypnotic. There are rock elements without having to sound like 38 Special or even the smooth production of the North Mississippi All-Stars. Jimbo’s vocal and guitar soloing are just raw enough to differentiate. Looking for some rough-and-tumble, soulful, rocking grooves? Here they are.

Sugar Ray and the BluetonesHands Across The Table (Severn Records) is apparently a comeback disc for a group, Sugar Ray and the Bluetones, with whom Ronnie Earl once played based out of the leader’s hometown of Providence, Rhode Island. Sugar Ray Norcia, vocals and harmonica, is not to be confused with Mark McGrath’s group “Sugar Ray” which dabbles in pop. This blues Sugar Ray has been compared in intensity to Kim Wilson. I agree with the comparison both vocally and harp-wise. The full-length CD submitted for review was received sans record number and liner notes (written by the group’s bassist Michael “Mudcat” Ward) and instead just basic music product, minimum photos, playlist and personnel. It blasts strong. A separate published print review gave me the benefit of interview comments from the leader drawing our attention to the album’s strong and simple contents. A couple of ballads counteract the shuffles, old-time rock numbers, one instrumental and good old slow blues. Most of the music is original, and maybe half of that by Sugar Ray himself. Two covers appear in very good taste: Frankie Laine’s hit, “That’s My Desire,” sounds more like late ‘50s than ‘40s, and “River Stay Away From My Door” is sung quite convincingly. There are present-day protest themes in a couple tunes. “Say You Love Me” deals with the Iraqi war in boogie rhythm, whereas “(I’m Gonna Break Into) Folsom Prison” suggests that a hotel would be more economical due to the outsourcing and export of American jobs. Toward the end of the program is something sounding like a Bessie Smith 1920s chord structure, and an appropriate closing waltz summarizes. The harmonica is never dominant, simply one of the strong solo instruments, and Sugar Ray possesses a good, warm tone. There is un-amplified, country-sounding harp in one spot. The band is tight and production clean. The Providence Horns add a wonderful bed to many cuts.

A top-notch jazz organ album, Joey DeFrancesco's CD, Legacy, with Jimmy Smith, begins in a 6/8 time signature against an exotic backdrop, an electric sitar of all things included. Not exactly typical Jimmy Smith, but exuding sufficient energy. Joey plays piano only here, hitting it hard to hint at, of all people, McCoy Tyner. The following cut is more typical Smith way up. One ballad offering of the disc, “I’ll Close My Eyes,” is relaxing but tends toward the syrupy. Several remakes of previous Smith selections appear like “Chicken Shack,” which features Raul Yanez’s piano (bringing a unique Afro-Cuban Montuno rhythm to the song created especially for the session). James Moody, world-famous saxophonist of true veteran status (he first recorded in the ‘40s), fell by to play on one released track and it’s dedicated to the late drummer Elvin Jones. The figure is attractive, because the sax and organ play in unison harmony and bouncy tempo. It’s also a track where Jimmy kicks his own organ bass, recalling his Blue Note label days. He’d recently broken a leg, then contracted an injury in the left hand, two vital working parts for a bass-playing organist. This alone is an impressive triumph. Next is another up-tempo bluesy number with addition of Tony Banda on bass and Joey returning to piano. “Corcovado” is soothing with good percussion and the Yamaha “Motif 7” keyboard of Joey’s providing “strings.” That same keyboard doesn’t fare quite as well on the calypso “St. Thomas” by Sonny Rollins; it sounds like a toy. Luckily, it doesn’t distract from the power of the piece. “Mojo Workin’” is a Smith vocal number. The beat is funky (Steve Ferrone guests on drums for Byron Landham) and Jimmy’s voice, thinned by years, still has an ultra bad attitude. One of my favorite numbers, “Blues For Bobby C,” has just the two organists and drummer. The liners suggest that Joey kicks bass for most of the duo's organ selections. Concentrated listening provides separation in stereo of the two organists. “Midnight Special,” another Smith jazz hit from years past, is the final remake and concluding cut. The groove is fantastic, pulling it back at just the right moment. It requires seasoned players. Organ jazz is a different animal. The release is Joey’s and Jimmy’s first full-album studio collaboration. Apparently Jimmy always came to play and indeed jammed with many well-know organists over the years, but none of these were recorded. DeFrancesco is the only one we know of who seized upon the opportunity to produce recordings of himself with Smith. This collaborative session was done in August 2004 at Tempe, Arizona. Jimmy Smith died in March 2005, so it was Smith’s last recording. It is consensus that Joey is the primary bearer of Smith’s legacy. Kudos to recording engineer Clarke Rigsby and Concord Records on-site executive producer John Burk.

---Tom Coulson
(Read my column)

Chris CottonYou might be unfamiliar with Chris Cotton, but that could be about to change pretty soon.  Cotton, the former frontman for the California-based Blue Eyed Devils, wandered down to Clarksdale, Mississippi and with help from producer Jimbo Mathus, has assembled one of the most amazing blues releases of the year.  Combining the Delta, Piedmont, Jug Band, and String blues along with old-timey country as well as folk music into one album is no small feat, but Cotton has brilliantly managed to do so with I Watched The Devil Die (Yellow Dog Records).  Cotton is as fine a guitarist as you’ll run across and his gravelly, expressive vocals are a perfect match for the material, which includes impressive covers of songs by Blind Willie McTell (“Dying Crapshooter’s Blues), the Mississippi Sheiks (if Cotton‘s rousing cover of “That‘s It“ doesn‘t get your toe tapping, there must be a tag tied around it), Skip James (“I’m So Glad”), and Mississippi John Hurt (“Louis Collins”), each of which are given a brand new shine by Cotton.  There are also seven original tracks written by Cotton, which blend smoothly with the older songs on the disc, most notably the title track and the album’s centerpiece, the nine-minute-plus romp “Black Night,” a menacing track which could have gone on an additional nine minutes with no problem and features some outstanding slide guitar from Clarksdale native Big Jack Johnson, and Cotton’s tribute to “the greatest bluesman that ever lived,”  Big Bill Broonzy (“Blues For Big Bill”).  Mathus, who produced  Buddy Guy’s last two albums, gives this disc a live, loose, and ragged feel, just like a jam session from 50 years ago.  The musicians featured on I Watched The Devil Die also warrant mentioning.  In addition to Johnson, other featured musicians include Mathus himself, who plays banjo, drums, bass, and slide guitar on selected tracks, and another Clarksdale native, drummer Lee Williams, whose propulsive boogie beat really keeps things moving along,  Barry Bays (bass), Hamilton Rott (fiddle), Adam Woodard (with some great barrelhouse piano), Olga (washboard, percussion, and fiddle), and the Clarksdale Hummingbirds (backing vocals) all make solid contributions to the album’s sound.  I Watched The Devil Die is definitely one disc you’ll be playing over and over again.

Bob Bogdal has been playing the blues ever since the mid ’80s, learning his trade from Northeast U.S. artists like Roosevelt Dean, Kim Simmonds, Pete McMahan, Tom Townsley (who taught him to play harmonica) and many others before hooking up with Richard Johnston, who introduced him to the hill country blues and to many of the artists who made it famous, such as Jesse Mae Hemphill, Othar Turner, Cedric Burnside, and the Kimbrough family.  Bogdal played harmonica on tour with Johnston and Mark Simpson and learned from them to play guitar in the hill country style.  Now, three years later, he has released his debut solo recording, Underneath the Kudzu (Kudzu Disc), which consists of 11 tracks written by Bogdal and performed in the hill country style.  Droning, trance-like, and haunting are words often used to describe the hill country style and Underneath the Kudzu fits that description as well, and Bogdal’s ominous guitar and lively harmonica form fit the style perfectly.  Bogdal’s vocals are half-spoken and could be a wee bit higher in the mix, but are very effective nonetheless.  Highlights include Bogdal’s tribute to Turner (“Mule Won’t Kick,” based on a story told to Bogdal by former R.L. Burnside drummer Calvin Jackson), “Preacher’s Daughter,” “17 Women in 13 States,” “The Calling,” and “Chilly Water.”  Speaking of chilly, the closing instrumental “South of the Willows” will cause goose bumps.  Bogdal’s lyrics, which seem to be largely autobiographical, capture the true essence of the hill country sound and of the blues itself.  Fans of that hill country sound will find much to savor here.  Check it out at or

Chris MurphyViolinist and composer Chris Murphy has released a pretty diverse set of albums over the past few years, both as a solo artist and with his group Ponticello, in styles ranging from rock to jazz to electronic.  This time around, he focuses on the blues with a fine set of 15 instrumentals on Broken Wheel (KUFALA Recordings). The violin is not usually associated with the blues, though there have been some violinists over the years who made an impact in the genre, such as Henry “Son” Sims (who played with Muddy Waters on his plantation recordings) and Bo Chatmon a.k.a. Bo Carter (who played solo and with the Mississippi Sheiks) from the ’30s and ’40s, to more modern practitioners like Papa John Creach, Don “Sugarcane” Harris, and Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown.  More recently, groundbreaking guitarist James Blood Ulmer featured an electric violinist (Charlie Burnham) on selected tracks on his last two CDs.  Murphy’s sound is closer to Burnham’s sound, only featured more prominently as the lead instrument.  His electric violin sounds like a captivating combination of harmonica and slide guitar.  He is only accompanied by bass and drums on most of the songs (guitarist Rick Holmstrom appears on four tracks) and they really drive things along with their propulsive rhythms and seem to increase Murphy’s intensity on some tracks, like the jumping title cut.  The disc is a mixture of blues styles, ranging from ’30s juke joint blues, to ’40s Chicago shuffles, and even New Orleans rags, but there are also hints of old time fiddle-playing on some tracks.  There is also a strongly jazzy undertone in Murphy’s playing at times, and the work of the rhythm section brings a little funk into the setting as well.  Song-wise, some highlights include “”Cherry Wine,” “Southside Willy,” “Ring-A Ding,” “Crawfish Pie,” “Salt Pork,” and the intriguingly-titled “Lazy Lester & The Two Scoops Kid.”  Fans of any of the artists mentioned above, or of good music in general, will enjoy giving this disc a spin.  This excellent CD can be found at  and other sites, but for more information about Chris Murphy and his other releases, go to

--- Graham Clarke

Tension & Release (Pop Twist Entertainment) is a video document of the 2003 Springing the Blues festival in Jacksonville Beach, Florida, opening with "The Star Spangled Banner" performed by Jimmy Thackery. Other performance include Otis Taylor ("Resurrection Blues"), John Hammond ("Buzz Fledder John"), Anthony Gomes ("Higher"), and an a cappella "Seminole Wind" by J. J. Grey of Mofro. Grey, Gomes, Hammond, E.G. Kight, and Taylor offer the most in-depth interviews. Telling and candid interviews with the artists, often with guitars in hand for segues between each musical segment. This is an entertaining and informative 100-minute viewing for the blues fan, especially for the contemporary blues fans. Also captured in performance are Deborah Coleman, Albert Castiglia, and Michael Burks.

The amazing Canadian label, NorthernBlues Music, is responsible for a cornucopia of quality blues albums from Eddie Turner, Paul Reddick, David Jacobs-Strain, Harry Manx, and more. The budget-priced sampler The Future of the Blues, Vol. 2 is an excellent introduction to the roster as it includes all those artists as well as Taxi Chain, Dan Treanor & Frankie Lee, Toni Lynn Washington, and more for 70 minutes of music. All the tracks save one come from other NorthernBlues Music releases. The bonus track is "Burning at the Feet of the Lord" from John and the Sisters, a raucous ensemble built around master guitarist Kevin Breit and journeyman blues vocalist John Dickie.  

Single-handedly keeping barrelhouse piano alive, Ann Rabson pulls her own "Little Red Wagon" on In a Family Way (Emit Doog Music). The title comes from the talented family members presented here. We have Ann's sister, violinist Mimi Rabson, Ann's brother-in-law Dave Harris on trombone and organ. Nephew Kenji Rabson took time away from the New York jazz circuit to be on the record and Kenji's father, jazz pianist Steve Rabson, is also here. Let us not overlook the talent of Ann's daughter, Liz Rabson-Schnore, here playing rhythm guitar. The energetic parts of this album have a boogie-woogie, New Orleans piano jazz feel that would make Professor Longhair proud ("Little Red Wagon," "Little Chickee Wah Wah"). Interspersed are the mellower, relaxed tunes in shades of blue ("Do Your Duty," "See See Rider," etc.).

 Saxophones and Hammond B3 organ fuel the swinging instrumental music on the excellent album, Destination ... Get Down! (Estrus Records), from the Iowa band The Diplomats of Solid Sound. The instrumental soul ensemble from America's heartland masters the slow funk groove on vamp after vamp here. Like Booker T. And The MG's for a new generation, the suave groovemeisters here channel a '60s beat and Stax soul through slick and sultry original material. Check the band website for more info.

 --- Tom Schulte

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