Blues Bytes

What's New

April 2016

an associate Order these featured CDs today:

Anni Piper

Luther Dickinson

Brothers Brown

Dennis Jones

Balkun Brothers

Van Wilks

Keith Stone

Paul Mark

Kelly Richey

Tommy Z

Waydown Wailers

Blues Keyboard Method

100 Authentic Blues Harmonica Licks

Chicago Blues Rhythm Guitar

Riff Riders

Too Slim and the Taildraggers

Toronzo Cannon


Anni PiperSome may think that Anni Piper is easy on the eyes, but after listening to her new album, More Guitars Than Friends, listeners will discover that the Australian singer/bassist is easy on the ears as well. Piper’s sixth release is her first on her own record label, Sugar Daddy Records, and it’s a captivating mix of blues, rock and soul that features her deep and sultry vocals and her formidable skills on the bass guitar.

Piper and her bandmates (guitarist Dave Kury, drummer Frank Hetzler, and guest saxphonist Charlie deChant of Hall & Oates fame) collaborated on seven of the ten tracks. They include the clever jump blues opener, “Wonder Woman,” which allows Piper the chance to lay down some nasty bass, the rollicking “Buckle Bunny,” the shimmering slow blues title track, the soul sender “Paper Bag,” the tropical-styled “Shotgun Wedding” (complete with Piper’s husband, Jabba Ehley, guesting on shotgun), the rock & roller “Eugene,” and the countrified “Blackberry Brandy.”

Piper chooses well on the three covers, too. First up is a unique reading of the Rosco Gordon classic “Just A Little Bit” that burns with energy and intensity. Piper has performed Saffire – The Uppity Blues Women’s “Cold Pizza and Warm Beer” live for many years and decided to include a hard rocking version on this album. Another longtime crowd pleaser was Memphis Slim’s “I’m Lost Without You,” which swings easily on this version.

Additional musicians include Sam Zambito (trumpet) and Mike Franklin (keyboards). Tim Franklin, Kury, and Hetzler also provide backing vocals. If you’re not familiar with Anni Piper or her recordings, More Guitars Than Friends is a great place to start, putting Piper’s considerable musical talents and smart songwriting on full display.

--- Graham Clarke

Luther DickinsonMusic lovers should drop what they’re doing immediately to run out and purchase Luther Dickinson’s new CD, Blues & Ballads: A Folksinger’s Songbook: Volume I & II (New West Records). You can thank me later. Dickinson’s new CD gathers 21 original songs songs, which are either songs he’s written over the years with his band, the North Mississippi Allstars, tunes influenced by songs he’s learned over his lifetime via friends and/or family, or based on songs passed down from his musical heroes or mentors.

Growing up, Dickinson collected, and continues to collect old hymnals and songbooks. He would spend hours trying to figure out the music, and would actually memorize them. It is the songbook concept, a tradition that is dying out in the electronic age, which serves as the concept of this album. Over the years, Dickinson has kept his own notebooks with his lyrics, ideas, drawings, and anything else that come to mind (some of those notes are recreated in the liner notes of the CD). The vinyl edition of this recording includes a limited edition songbook, with transcriptions for each song.

Though the primary focus on these songs are Dickinson’s vocals and guitar (he also plays mandolin, piano, and coffee can-diddley bow), there are also other instruments and musicians present on most of the tracks, including Shardé Thomas, whose sweet vocals, drums, and blues fife are prominent on several tracks, Amy LaVere (upright bass, vocals), Memphis soul legend Charles Hodges (B3, piano), Little Mae Rische (fiddle, vocals), Paul Taylor (tub bass), and Jimmy Crostwait (washboard, cardboard box, maracas).

Other musicians who make appearances on the album include Mavis Staples and JJ Grey (vocals), Jason Isbell (slide guitar), Will Sexton (drums, acoustic guitar), Dominic Davis (upright bass), Boo Mitchell (conga), Alvin Youngblood Hart (guitar, vocals), and Jimbo Mathus (banjo, vocals). Sharisse and Shontelle Norman also provide backing vocals.

The highlights are plentiful --- the duet with Ms. Staples on “Ain’t No Grave” has received a lot of attention, and deservedly so. Dickinson wrote the tune shortly after his father’s (producer/singer/songwriter Jim Dickinson) death for the NMAS album Keys To The Kingdom in 2011. Beautifully recreated, with Dickinson’s lead vocal and guitar, Staples’ gently reassuring background vocal, and Thomas’ simple backbeat, it’s a powerful moment.

The opener is another standout. “Hurry Up Sunrise” was originally written by Thomas’ grandfather, Otha Turner. It’s a light and bouncy tune with Dickinson and Thomas’ vocals blending perfectly. “Mean Ol’ Wind Died Down” features the pair in vocal unison again with Thomas’ fife also figuring prominently (I hope that Ms. Thomas blesses us with an album of her own in the near future). Other songs like “Bang Bang Lulu” and “Mojo, Mojo” feature Rische’s fiddle, and “Let It Roll” heads to the church, courtesy of the somber vocals, Dickinson’s stinging lead and slide guitar, and Hodges swirling B3.

Grey and Dickinson join forces on the spare “Up Over Yonder,” another gospel-flavored tune. “Blow Out” is a short, but sharp punchy rocking blues, and “Shake (Yo’ Mama)” mixes the ominous Delta boogie of John Lee Hooker with the swampy blues of Slim Harpo, and Dickinson is joined by Hart on guitar and Mathus on banjo for this rollicking and loose-limbed effort.

Blues & Ballads is a perfect capsule of American music, where it was years ago and how it became what it is today. It’s also a career summary of sorts for Luther Dickinson’s music career --- not a “Greatest Hits” collection, but more of a tracing of his musical journey. Currently, Dickinson and his bandmates are among the best at taking the traditional music of the past and recreating and reprocessing it for the future, making it accessible for the new generation, but still keeping the soul, grit and spirit that made it so compelling in the beginning. This album is living proof.

--- Graham Clarke

The Brothers BrownThe Brothers Brown are fronted by a pair of musicians, both named Paul Brown. One is a two-time Grammy winning L.A.-based singer/guitarist/songwriter and the other is a Nashville-based producer/keyboardist/songwriter who’s been nominated for a Grammy. Backed by a tight rhythm section (David Santos – bass/ guitars, Pete Young – drums), also based in Nashville, the Brothers Brown recently issued Dusty Road (Funky Joint Records), a collection of timeless blues and R&B originals that will certainly thrill fans of classic tunes from artists like Boz Scaggs, Little Feat, and Creedence Clearwater Revival.

The opening track, “Cup of Tea,” percolates right along with a greasy rhythm that would have fit in perfectly with Dixie Chicken-era Little Feat. “Love Sake” has a jazzy feel with keyboardist Paul Brown’s cushy B3 and guitarist Paul Brown’s fluid guitar. “Sweet Cadillac” is down with the funk, New Orleans-style, and “When All Is Said And Done” has catchy lyrics and solid interplay between the Browns on guitar and keys. Speaking of catchy, try to make it through the charming “Can’t Outrun The Blues” without chanting the refrain.

“The River” is a splendid track that sounds a lot like an outtake from The Band’s classic days, and the sultry “Hurricane” features the slide guitar of Little Feat’s Paul Barrere. “Nothin’ But Love” is a funk-infused rocker with some standout work from Santos and Young. “This Old Heart” is a loping blues track about a relationship on the rocks, and “California” is a moody soul/blues. The melancholy “Drink You Off My Mind” is a soulful romp.

The title track closes the disc and it’s one of those classic “driving” songs with superlative interplay between the Browns (on guitar and B3) and the rock-solid rhythm section. Listen to this one and be amazed at the fact that the four of them were NEVER in the same room during the recording of this album. Listening to Dusty Road, it’s obvious that this wasn’t a factor because despite the distance between them, Brothers Brown all have roots in the same musical soil, encompassing blues, jazz, rock, and soul. If you’re into any of these genres, you should have this disc.

--- Graham Clarke

Dennis JonesIt’s a mystery to me why Dennis Jones isn’t more acclaimed than he is. Since 2003, the L.A.-based blues rocker has released one powerhouse album after another, each loaded to the brim with stunning guitar work (he counts the Kings, Hendrix, and Page as influences .... an impressive line-up), profound songwriting, and propulsive rhythm section backing that’s second-to-none (Dale Black – bass, Raymond Johnson – drums).

Through the years, he has served as an opening act for the likes of Buddy Guy, Johnny Winter, John Mayall, and Dick Dale, but Both Sides of the Track, Jones’ fifth recording for Blue Rock Records, should propel him to the headliner list if there’s any justice in the world. Jones wrote all 13 tracks and produced the disc himself. He has guitar chops to burn, but it never seems like he beats you over the head with solo after solo, in part because of the creative way he mixes blues with rock, funk, and soul. His solos are always crisp, concise, and they cut like a knife.

I was going to list standout tunes, but they’re all standouts. The dazzling opener, “Enjoy The Ride,” is a fun ride that adds Jimmy “Z” Zavala’s saxophone to the mix. Jones states his case as the better man on the amusing “Better Than Him,” and channels Hendrix on the topical “The Machine,” discusses relationship issues on “You’re Nobody’s Slave,” and racial issues on “Skin and Bone.” “What” is another entertaining tune, a toe tapper with acoustic guitar, Jimmy Z’s harmonica and a creative rhythm.

“Mr. Right” is a splendid slow blues with some fierce string-bending from Jones, and so is “When You’re Not Around,” but the latter has more of a modernized urban touch. “Number Two” is a sharp rocking shuffle, and “I Can’t Stop” is a rip-roaring rocker as well. I can pretty much guarantee that you’ve never heard anything like the closer, “Lonely Joint.” This unique tune is an acoustic tune told from the subject’s perspective.

Dennis Jones has all the qualities that blues fans look for in their favorite artists --- he’s a killer guitarist and vocalist with a knack for writing memorable songs, and he’s backed by a powerhouse band. With any luck at all, Both Sides of the Track should open a few eyes and ears to his talents.

--- Graham Clarke

Balkun BrothersI thoroughly enjoyed the Balkun Brothers’ debut release, ReDrova, last spring. The Connecticut-based band, brothers Steve (guitar/vocals) and Nick (drums/vocals) Balkun have a sound that’s equal parts Delta and Hill Country blues, funk, and Hendrix/Zeppelin-like rock and they’ve just issued their second, self-titled release on Dixiefrog Records. The new album finds the duo teaming with NYC blues phenom Popa Chubby, who serves as producer and engineer, on 11 originals and one cover.

There’s plenty of fire and swagger on these tunes, with Steve Balkun’s amazing guitar skills and rawhide vocals and Nick’s propulsive percussion charging through the relentless boogie rhythm of “Been Drivin’,” the hypnotic Hill Country drone of “I Know What Ya Did,” the churning electric blues of “She Got It All,” and the swampy, Hendrixian “Cold Heart.” The boys aren’t afraid to funk things up either --- just check out “Pawn Shop,” with its fiery slide guitar break, and “Bapadubap,” which should have heads bobbing and butts shaking.

The album’s lone cover, Johnny Winter’s “Mean Town Blues,” is six and half minute of relentless boogie and “The Painkillers” is a searing rocker. “Jail Bird” is a moody, atmospheric tune with some tasty slide guitar throughout. “Storm for The Devil” follows suit with a sweaty, modernized Delta ambience. The album closer, “Rainy Day Front Porch Blues,” finds the brothers going unplugged and traditional, with Steve’s dobro backed by a steamy Mississippi rainstorm.

I can’t imagine any blues rock fans not liking Balkun Brothers, but this one should also appeal to those who prefer the standard, traditional variety of blues as well. The brothers have an uncanny knack of blending both styles in a manner that should appeal to either group. Expect to hear much more from them in the future.

--- Graham Clarke

Van WilksGuitarist Van Wilks has been a part of the Austin blues scene since the ’70s, when he was rocking the town with his band, Fools. He signed with Mercury Records in 1979 and subsequently released six solo albums and one live album for various labels. He’s toured with ZZ Top (appearing on the band’s Live at Montreux Jazz Festival DVD), Heart, Van Halen, Journey, Aerosmith, and others. He’s won multiple Austin Music Awards, been voted best electric and acoustic guitarist in the Austin Chronicle’s Reader’s Poll, and is a member of the Texas Music Hall of Fame.

21st Century Blues (Texas ’51 Records) is Wilks’ first studio release in 10 years and, boy, is he making up for lost time. This is a powerhouse set of 12 Texas-styled blues rock in the tradition of acts like ZZ Top, which is no mere coincidence ….. Wilks and ZZ Top’s own Billy F. Gibbons are longtime friends and musical associates, Wilks’ vocals bear a strong resemblance to Gibbons, who also co-wrote “Drive By Lover” with Wilks (which previously appeared on ZZ Top’s La Futura album).

There’s another notable pair of guest musicians --- Grammy-winner Christopher Cross and soul/blues/rock vocalist Malford Milligan both appear on the scorching Cross composition “She Makes Me Crazy,” Cross playing guitar (he also sings on “Drive By Lover”) and Milligan sharing vocals with Wilks, who is also backed by drummers Tommy Taylor, Charlie Fountain, Nico Leophonte, and Scott Lanningham, bassists Reggie Witty, Dave Ray, Mark Epstein, Chris Maresh, and Andy Salmon, keyboardist Billy Mason and Stefano Intelisano, and vocalists Lisa Tingle and Maria Estela Raffone.

While the primary focus is on hard-driving Texas blues rockers like “Strange Girl,” “Golddigger,” “Who’s Foolin’ Who,” and the acoustic-to-electric rocking hurricane “There’s A Sin In There Somewhere,” Wilks also acquits himself well on a pair of ballads, the bluesy “Just Walk Away” and “If I Were A Rich Man.” The pop rocker title track is also a standout, and “Can’t Stop Thinkin’” and “Livin’ on Borrowed Time” lean more toward straight rock as well. The closer, “Midnight Crossing,” is a largely instrumental track, just Wilks and his guitar, and Raffone’s ghostly whispered vocals.

21st Century Blues may come charging out of your speakers just like the locomotive pictured on the cover. This is an excellent set of blues rock done Texas-style. This is a relentless set of Texas blues rock that deserves to be heard by not just blues and blues rock fans. Hopefully, Van Wilks will make his way back in the studio much sooner next time around.

--- Graham Clarke

Keith StoneNew Orleans singer/guitarist Keith Stone began performing in the Crescent City while in his teens, and played for five years with Willie Lockett & the Blues Krewe, where the legendary Wayne Bennett became a friend and musical mentor. In the mid ’90s, Stone kicked a drug addiction, left New Orleans, and became an ordained Christian music pastor for a church in South Carolina. He returned to his hometown in the wake of Katrina, beginning a non-profit organization that raised millions for victims of the hurricane.

Stone returns to his musical roots with his latest album, The Prodigal Returns (Keith Stone Music), which also feature guest appearances from some of the Pelican State’s finest musicians --- Dr. John, zydeco star Bruce “Sunpie” Barnes, keyboardist Joe Krown, singer Elaine Foster, bassist/producer David Hyde, and Louisiana Music Hall of Famer Nelson Blanchard.

The prelude is a gentle minute and a half instrumental reading of the gospel classic, “Just a Closer Walk with Thee" (featuring Dr. John on piano), that sets the stage perfectly for what lies ahead. Stone wastes no time, jumping right into “Better Things To Do,” a R&B raver, punctuated by a tough horn section (Lacy Blackledge – trumpet, Mike Broussard – tenor/baritone sax), who will come into play more than once on the album, like on the soulful slow blues “First Love” that follows.

"Cindy Leigh” is a zydeco-fueled rocker with Barnes adding accordion, and that great horn sections (augmented by Bobby Henderson on alto sax). “Take Me Home” is a laidback tribute to Stone’s home state, and “New Orleans Moonlight” is a splendid swampy ballad. “Time To Move On” has a funky Crescent City vibe, and “Make Me Feel Alright” is an up-tempo country rocker.

Stone jazzes things up a bit with the groovy instrumental “Buster’s Place,” and breaks out the wah wah guitar on the greasy title track before closing with a wonderful eight and a half minute revisit to “Just a Closer Walk with Thee.” Dr. John and the horn section (Kevin Clark – trumpet, Tim Stambaugh – sousaphone, David Phy – trombone, Cale Pellick – alto sax) return for this one, which also includes Stone’s soulful vocal, backed by Foster’s sweet harmony vocals, and Krown on organ.

The Prodigal Returns is an entertaining disc that should really please fans of New Orleans blues and R&B. There are definitely hints of both genres in these 11 tunes, with a dash of gospel thrown in for good measure. It’s always good to hear somebody revisit the classic sounds of New Orleans.

--- Graham Clarke

Paul MarkStowaways (Radiation Records), the latest release from Paul Mark & the Van Dorens, is quite a change of pace from their previous fare, which usually consists of a wild mix of blues rock, R&B, and thought-provoking lyrics, combined with the road-tested and ready vocals of front man Mark. Actually, the first two characteristics listed above are largely absent this time around, but Mark’s always innovative lyrics remain.

The musical vibe is more after-hours this time around, focusing on smoky ballads that blend blues, jazz, and cabaret. Backed by a string section, and drummer Paul Vezelis on one track, Mark and the Van Dorens are one and the same on this album …. he plays all the other instruments (piano, guitar, acoustic bass, organ, drums, harmonium, melodica, xylophone, and percussion).

Mark wrote nine of the ten songs on Stowaways. They include the dreamy title track, the clever and cynical “How Do The Blind Become So Famous,” “Once Upon a Weekend” (a reflective, romantic ballad with Tess Primack), and the playful “Bridge To Nowhere.” “Jamestown Ferry (Wendy)” is a brief melancholy ballad that shows Mark’s sentimental side, while the upbeat “Resurrection Tango,” shows his clever sense of humor. “Degraw Avenue” is full of vivid imagery and characters.

The lone cover on the album is “Mack The Knife,” and not the sanitized version that most music fans are familiar with via Bobby Darin or Louis Armstrong. Mark’s version is the Manheim/Willett version from their mid-’70s production of Threepenny Opera, and is much darker than what listeners heard in the ’50s and ’60s on the radio.

Stowaways comes in a slipcase, with attractive hardcover linen binding and a booklet containing song information and lyrics. While it represents a change of pace that may take Paul Mark’s longtime fans by surprise a bit, it’s a very rewarding listen, as all of Paul Mark’s releases always are. His lyrics and vocals are always worth the price of admission and he sounds as good as he ever has in this context.

--- Graham Clarke

Kelly RicheyOne good thing about Kelly Richey, certainly not the only good thing, is that she rarely stays in the same place musically for very long. For her 16th and latest release, Shakedown Soul (Sweet Lucy Records), the singer/guitarist retains her usual exemplary guitar, songwriting, and vocal talents, but her usual mix of blues and rock n’ roll is enhanced with the addition of horns, DJ scratching and drum loops, and strings and synthesizers.

While Richey adds the extra bells and whistles to this new album, she doesn’t lean on it, like so many artists did years ago. Instead, it amplifies and broadens her sound to powerful effect on several tracks, like the feisty “You Wanna Rock,” “Only Going Up,” and “I Want To Run,” or the funky workouts “Lies” and “Love.” Richey’s songwriting skills are front and center on a trio of strong tunes, “The Artist In Me,” “Afraid To Die,” and “Just Like A River.”

Reportedly, Richey told producer Tobe “Tobiotus” Donohoe and bass player Rikk Manning, “You make me cool and you make me relevant and I’ll make you rock!” Donohoe, who played drums, synths, and did all of the sequencing, and Manning, who plays some monster bass on the album, more than hold up their end of the deal. As for Richey, the lady can’t help but rock …… she’s been doing it for 35 years now and is as cool and relevant as she’s ever been.

Shakedown Soul ranks as Kelly Richey’s best work to date. If you’re not familiar with her talents, this is a fine place to get started.

--- Graham Clarke

Tommy ZBuffalo guitarist Tommy Z returns with Blizzard of Blues (South Blossom Records), another irresistible set of powerhouse tunes that mix traditional blues, jazz, pop, and even a touch of gospel with electrifying blues rock. The nine-song set features eight original tunes written by Tommy Z and one inspired cover. He’s backed by Damone Jackson (drums, percussion), Kevin Urso (organ), Jeremy Keyes (harmonica), and Jerry Livingston, Stanley Swampski, or Walter Riggo (bass).

The opener, “Lovergirl,” is a funky shuffle which includes Keyes on harmonica, giving it a Windy City feel. The fierce rocker “Going To A Party” is destined to be a crowd pleaser, since it will remind listeners of Stevie Ray Vaughan’s “The House Is Rockin’,” with a fiery guitar break from Tommy Z to kick things up a notch. “Memory Of Love” “Memory of Love” is a slow burner with pile driving metallic fretwork and complementary keyboards from Urso, while “Blues For KP” is also a slow blues, but with more of a blues/jazz approach that is highly effective.

The impressive “Bags of Cool” is a definite nod to the “cool” guitar sounds of Albert Collins (down to the title) with a thumping walking bass line from Livingston and great work on the keys from Urso. The title track is a smoldering blues rocker that belies its title, and “Miracle” is an inspirational track about returning from the brink. The closer, “Al’s Groove,” is an exquisite jazz/blues instrumental which, at nearly nine minutes long, allows each band member ample room to stretch out. The album’s lone cover is a funky reworking of the Muddy Waters classic “My Eyes Keep Me In Trouble.”

Blizzard of Blues will certainly appeal to blues rock fans, but there’s enough diversity in these nine tracks to appeal to fans of traditional blues and jazz guitar as well. Tommy Z is building up a nice catalog of recordings and this one is his best to date.

--- Graham Clarke

Dave MuskettThe Dave Muskett Acoustic Blues Band is the latest project undertaken by the singer/guitarist, who made it to the 2014 IBC semi-finals, the 2015 finals (as part of the duo Muskett & Carnes), and the 2016 finals (as a solo artist). Harmonica player Carnes joins him on this latest endeavor, along with bassist Jay Arnold and drummer Charlie Bushor. Muskett’s approach to guitar playing is influenced by the Piedmont finger-style blues guitar, which is a style not ordinarily heard in a full band format, but that’s definitely not an issue on the group’s new release, Recorded Live At The Slippery Noodle Inn (Muskett Music Media), which captures a performance at the famous Indianapolis club this past November.

The whole performance has a comfortable feel, like a bunch of guys gathering on the front porch with their friends playing music. All 12 tunes are originals and they touch on both Piedmont and Delta styles. Standout tracks include the lively opener, “That Kind of Walk” and “She Can’t Give Me The Blues,” both of which have a nice, mellow flow, the lively “Ain’t My Good Girl Now,” the Delta-flavored “Handyman Blues,” a pair of tunes (“Rain Song” and “Sweet Mary Jane”) which feature Muskett on dobro, the salacious “Pet That Thing,” and the rousing closer “You Gotta Know.”

I really like the interplay between Muskett’s dazzling guitar work and Carnes’ sterling harmonica play ….. I can see how they rated so highly at the IBC. The rock solid rhythm section also does an excellent job. Muskett’s warm vocals are a plus as well. This sounds like it was a fun set to witness in person and acoustic blues fans will have a ball listening to this one at home.

--- Graham Clarke

Waydown WailersThe Waydown Wailers call their music “Outlaw Jam Rock.” It’s a heady mix of blues, Southern rock, country, jam and Americana. If you’re a fan of the great ’60s group The Band, you’ll have an idea of what I’m talking about. Led by the Parker brothers (Dave Parker – guitar/lead vocals, and Christian Parker – lead guitar) and anchored by a strong rhythm section (Michael Scriminger – drums/percussion, Connor Pelkey – bass/backing vocals), the New York-based quartet enlisted the services of longtime Band associate Professor Louie (producer/keyboards, backing vocals) and his cohort, Miss Marie (backing vocals) for their sophomore effort, Empty Promises (Woodstock Records).

Irresistible melodies and catchy lyrics are the norm for this group, who offer up nine originals tunes that touch on everyday experiences and observations, including the jaunty opener, “Don’t Let Life Pass You By,” the topical rocker “Jealousy,” and the edgy title track. I really like the upbeat tempo of “Waydown Blue,” which almost gives it a pop sheen. “No Time To Waste” is a message song with a distinctive melody, and “She’s Gonna Run” has an old-school quality thanks to Professor Louie’s keyboards and Christian Parker’s twangy guitar break.

“St. Vraine” and “Still Water” are both rife with vivid imagery, the latter taking on a haunting Cajun flavor with the Professor adding accordion to the mix, and “Whiskey & Cornbread” is a fun closer. If the last couple of tracks remind you of the swampy sounds of Creedance Clearwater Revival, then the band’s sizzling cover of “Suzie Q” will seal the deal for you.

I really like Dave Parker’s earthy, weathered vocals. He reminds me at times of Russell Smith of Amazing Rhythm Aces fame. His brother is top notch on guitar and the rhythm section is rock steady. If you’re a blues fan, or you dig classic rock & roll, circa the late ’60s Band/CCR era, then you’ll find that Empty Promises is an enjoyable and entertaining journey into American music that is sure to please.

--- Graham Clarke

I recently received three music books from the renowned Hal Leonard series for review at Blues Bytes. A small disclaimer before starting …. I am most definitely NOT a musician. I have no musical skills whatsoever …… none at all. On a good day, when the skies are clear, I might be able to play a radio, but that’s about it. I once attempted to play harmonica, but failed miserably, receiving multiple noise complaints from family, neighbors, and pets.

Blues Keyboard MethodHowever, I am surrounded by musical talent in my family. My daughters have both played piano, drums, and flute between them, my brother makes cigar box guitars (check his site here) and also plays bass, guitar, and saxophone. Backed by that support group, I am making an effort to review these three volumes --- Blues Keyboard Method, by longtime Buddy Guy keyboardist Marty Sammon, 100 Authentic Blues Harmonica Licks, from harmonica ace Steve Cohen, and Chicago Blues Rhythm Guitar, a collaborative effort from Bob Margolin and Dave Rubin.

Let’s begin with Blues Keyboard Method. Sammon was playing the blues in his native Chicago by the age of 15, backing L.V. Banks before joining Phil Guy’s band, then later working with Otis Rush. For the past decade, he has served as Buddy Guy’s keyboard player. An amazing talent, Sammon also is a very good, down-to-earth instructor. He encourages would-be students to learn by listening and to develop their own sound over time.

One good thing about music books in the 21st century is that they often come with audio samples. In this case, the owner of the book has access to a code that will allow them access to a website loaded with audio samples of solo and ensemble piano examples played by Sammon himself (with Giles Corey on guitar, Marvin Little on bass, and Rick King on drums). He covers all the bases, including a helpful vocabulary page, which was very helpful to a novice like me ….. I now have the sounds to go with the descriptions of various piano styles.

Sammon covers solo and ensemble playing, intros, turnarounds, endings, licks, and solos, on both piano and organ. He also includes a list of his own essential blues recordings for budding piano players which, while not a definitive list, is very wide-ranging and serves as a nice start for new listeners. My oldest daughter is studying music in college and in what spare time she has, she found Blues Keyboard Method to be interesting and challenging, but enjoyed trying to work through it even though she's not a blues fanatic like her old man.

100 Blues Harmonica LicksAs I stated above, I once tried to play harmonica with no success, so I decided to give 100 Authentic Blues Harmonica Licks a try myself. I immediately realized that I didn’t have enough (any) harmonica skills to do very much with this book. That was fine, because there are other books out there for beginners. It would more than likely be better to have some already-established abilities before trying this book. That being said, I will continue to see what I can do with it myself.

Cohen is a Milwaukee resident who has performed and recorded since 1970, and is also a singer and guitarist. For this book, he incorporates licks that will be familiar to fans of Jimmy Reed, Sonny Boy Williamson (Rice Miller Edition), Little Walter, James Cotton, Junior Wells, Charlie Musselwhite, and Howlin’ Wolf. Like Sammon in the keyboard book, Cohen also provides some vocabulary information and descriptions that are very helpful to budding musicians and music lovers.

Instead of a website, this book comes with a CD that contains demo and play-along tracks, which include backing riffs and solo licks. This would be a very handy guide for an intermediate player who’s looking to advance his skills.

Blues Rhythm GuitarThe authors of Chicago Blues Rhythm Guitar: The Complete Definitive Guide certainly have their credentials in order. Bob Margolin served as rhythm guitarist for Muddy Waters throughout most of the ’70s and has enjoyed a successful solo career. He also contributes as a columnist for Blues Music Magazine. Dave Rubin is a blues music historian and author whose name you’ve seen on numerous other music books. The information in this book is very complete and clearly presented and the authors also mix in some very good stories and anecdotes between the lessons, but not too much as to distract potential players. Regardless, it’s pretty obvious that these guys are both familiar with the subject at hand and they do an excellent job providing what’s needed for new, intermediate, and experienced players.

This book goes a step beyond the other two as far as learning material goes.The book comes with a DVD by Margolin, who actually plays the lessons described in the book, so the student can see the guitar work being put into action. There’s also access to the same videos online for downloading or streaming. The lessons are pretty easy to follow, according to my brother, but the videos are even more helpful for those who need to see what’s being done.

From an information perspective on learning to play these instruments in a blues setting, you would be hard pressed to find better learning guides than these three books. They’re almost as good as having the musicians in the room with you.

--- Graham Clarke

Riff RidersBased in Erie, Pennsylvania, The Riff Riders play a tough brand of blue collar blues and rock, with a dash of greasy soul mixed in for good measure, courtesy of the potent vocals of Amy “Shally” Shallenberger, who’s backed by Sean Seth (lead/cigar box guitars), Otis James (harmonica), Tony LaPaglia (bass), and Joe Caprara (drums). The group recently released their debut album, Hit The Road (Power Waggin’ Records), an impressive set of 12 original tunes.

The freewheeling title track opens the disc on an upbeat note and sets the bar pretty high. Fortunately, the band is more than up to the task with the rocker “Bounce Back,” which showcases Seth’s fretwork to fine effect, the groovy rockabilly raver “Back Door Kenny,” and the defiant slow blues “Cut Me Down (12.5 Bar Blues).” The midtempo “Rumors” and the funky “Open Door” are also standouts, and “Trouble” is a pleasing slow burner.

The old school rock & roller “My ’65” should be a favorite, kicking off with a motorcycle engine. Next, the band heads down to the Delta with the slide-drenched (courtesy of Seth’s four-string cigar box guitar) “Rollin’,” which also showcases Shallenberger’s vocal versatility. “Leave Me Alone” has a catchy rhythm and guitar riff that will get next to you. The somber “Rich Song” was penned by Seth, paying tribute to a friend who recently passed away. The closer is an upbeat rocking blues “Stuck On You,” which wraps up the package nicely.

The combination of Shallenberger’s vocals, Seth’s fretwork and the tight rhythm section make Hit The Road a high energy set of blues rockers that will satisfy even the most discriminating of blues fans. Be sure and catch The Riff Riders live if they make it to your town.

--- Graham Clarke

The Riff Riders are a hard working band out of Erie, Pennsylvania consisting of Amy Shallenberger on vocals, Sean Seth on guitars, Otis James on harp, Terry LaPaglia on bass and Joe Caprara holding down the back end on the pots and pans. True to their vintage sound, the band has put together a disc of all original tunes, Hit the Road, that reflects their blues-rock driven preferences. It’s a very good effort for a debut disc.

Sean’s fretwork provides the intro for the title tune, “Hit the Road,” as Amy tells us she’s ready to roll. Otis’s harp fills in the background as Amy takes off with her man, “Going to hit that highway…far away with you…east bound…west bound…anywhere but this town.” If he’s good to go then Amy’s ready to get and it’s time to “hit the road.” The band segues on to our next cut, “Bounce Back,” and Terry’s bass is holding down the rhythm on the back end. Amy’s about had enough of the man in her life and it’s time for him to go, and then she finds her way back. “You’ll go for days…with nothing to say…that’s just your way…Oh no…I can’t take it…one more alone in the night spent…oh, my resolve weakens…so, here I go again…I bounce back…to you!” Amy’s tired of being treated badly but she doesn’t want to be set free either. It’s a hard call, but one she’s going to have to make one of these days.

Our next cut, “Back Door Kenny,” tells the story of Amy gambling her man’s money away while waiting for her lover to appear. “I spent your last penny…waiting for back door, Kenny.” Losing his woman and his money? That’s got to hurt. This tune has a great rockabilly feel to it and Sean’s fretwork is off the charts on his extended solo. “Cut Me Down” makes an appearance as the first ballad on the disc, and here we find Amy a woman scorned. “Damn you…for making me feel this way again…stranded on the sidelines…watching you live your life just fine…taking my ride out of town…no more of you…to cut me down.” Amy’s had enough this time and she’s ready to go. The confrontation won’t be pretty but it has to happen. Otis chimes in with a very sorrowful harp fill and we can feel the pain this man has caused Amy in her time with him.

So of course, “Rumors,” is our next tune and there’s more conflicting stories in the air. “Oh, when the fire needs gasoline…everyone’s got to watch the scene…some call it wrong…some call it right…some just like to start a fight…and watch it burn…everywhere they turn…I can’t shake those rumors.” We move on to hear Terry and Joe laying down an extremely bass heavy back end as Amy hits the vocal for “Open Door.” Here we find Amy engaged in a game of cat and mouse with the man who has her attention. “Can you see me…I see you…tell me what you’re going to do.” Amy’s ready for whatever game he wants to play, he just has to make a move.

Amy is a woman who just seems to attract attention and we hear more about it in the band’s next tune, “Trouble.” “Trouble…oh trouble…stays after me…and there’s no way…it will let me be…cause trouble, keeps calling me!” Sean launches a sonic guitar solo and there’s no doubt that Amy’s a woman who trouble seems to find easily. Next up is “My 65,” and we’re treated to the sounds of a motorcycle firing up to provide the introduction to the tune. An ode to a '65 Harley Davidson Panhead, the tune is full of harp fills and its clear Amy loves her bike. “Blue and white…makes it feel alright…she’s 65…fully dressed…that rides the best…that 65.”

“Rollin” is our next cut and Sean’s slide work on a cigar box guitar is front and center, giving the tune a serious Delta feel. Evil forces are at work here and Amy finds herself in the eye of the storm. “I’m standing on this ground…till it swallows my soul…I see you coming….way down that road….no there’s hiding…your only cause is your own…greedy & heavy…you must have forgotten…oh no…I’ll never go…I’m planted…nothing will ever break my own.” There’s isn’t any temptation that’s going to move Amy from earth that grounds her soul.

I find “Leave Me Alone” has its own bit of sass and Amy’s sticking to her guns once again. “You said I party too much…that I got no drive…there are things you don’t know…that keep me alive…oh, babe…you don’t understand…but the words, it hit home…leave me alone.” If this man is going to keep Amy in his life…he’s going to have to learn to understand her and appreciate her. Our next tune, “Rich Song,” was written by Sean in honor of a friend of his that had just passed away. “What’s the answer…I don’t know why…he had to die.” Sean’s fretwork echoes the pain he feels at the loss of his friend and we never know why we’re called when we are.

The band closes out the album with a party tune, “Stuck on You.” “You can kiss me here…you can touch me there…tell me all your problems…I might even care…but that don’t mean…I’m stuck on you.” Amy’s a woman of many moods and while she’s open to almost everything, it doesn’t mean she’s going to care or that she’s going to stay.

I admire the Riff Riders attention to the details on their first CD and kudos to them for releasing a disc of all original material. The band’s musical abilities are highlighted here to the max and I appreciate their affinity for a vintage sound. Hit the Road is the first of what I would hope are many discs to come as the band continues to evolve and write more original music for their fans to enjoy. You can find out more about this band from Pennsylvania at and follow their musical journey there as it unfolds.

--- Kyle Deibler

Too SlimTim “Too Slim” Langford took some time off from the road to address a health issue and it’s readily apparent the rest did him some good. He’s back with the latest effort from Too Slim & the Taildraggers, Blood Moon, and it features some of Tim’s tastiest guitar fretwork to date. It’s a high energy tour de force that assaulted my senses from the get go, let’s give it a spin.

A heavy bass intro from Robert Kearns leads us to “Evil Minds,” and here Tim is telling us about a woman with evil intentions. “You smile in your face…while you’re planning a disgrace...take a look behind you at the damage you have done…you have an evil mind.” Tim’s fretwork is blazing hot in this first tune and the bar is set very high for the rest of the disc. The title track, “Blood Moon,” is next and it has a more sinister feel to it. Where “Evil Minds” was straight up bad to the bone, the band takes a little more time to develop the story behind “Blood Moon.” “There’s a blood moon rising…now your light is going to shine…leave it all behind you…don’t you ever look back.” Time to leave whatever’s in the past right there where it belongs, and look to the future with an open heart and mind. Tim’s intricate fretwork accentuates the rise of the Blood Moon and the back end with Robert and Jeff Fowlkes on drums completes the intensity of the tune.

We move on to “Twisted Rails” and Tim looks to the promise of the future. “Miles of calculations…trials and tribulations…but never giving up the fight…trying to ride these twisted rails...holding on with love and faith.” Tim’s still got a lot to accomplish with his music and he’s looking forward to the journey, wherever it may take him. Tim’s guitar intro leads us to our next tune, “Get Your Going Out On,” and here Tim is happy to be going out with the love of his life … if she’d every be ready to go. “Well, I wanna throw a fit…but she wouldn’t care a bit…you never rush a woman…because she knows you’re just her bitch…but she’s going to turn some heads…in those Armani threads…Come on…giddy up…get your going out on.”

“Gypsy” finds Tim in love with a woman he can’t escape from. “I fell for the gypsy….it wasn’t hard to tell…that the gypsy had me in her spell.” I like the slower tempo of this tune and Tim’s quiet sense of desperation even though he knows he’ll never escape the spell of the gypsy. Tim and the band move on to “My Body,” and here Tim contemplates what the end will look like and the need to set his spirit free. “Don’t want no wood box…wrapped around my bones…sweet love of mine...I will wait for you…search for me and I will search for you.” Tim’s fretwork here is especially emotive and I’m appreciating the finality of him knowing that he will wander through time and space in search of the woman he loves in the next world, the woman he leaves behind.

Our next tune, “Dream,” continues this sense of life ending before it’s time as Tim sings of the grim reaper coming for him. “Just can’t believe…that you’re coming for me…that you’re coming for me…I ain’t ready for the reaper…so don’t come knocking on my door…I got too much left to live for…ain’t going down to your killing floor.” Fortunately the tone of despair changes and Tim moves on to “Letter,” a chance to thank everyone for their support of his life and music. “I’m going to write me a little letter to my friends…tell em’, thank you friends…for thinking about me.” I like the exuberance in Tim’s playing here and I know for a fact he’s grateful for all of the support of his friends and fans.

This feeling continues with “Good Guys Win.” “I got twisted fingers …an achin back…and I’ve played ten thousand shows…don’t blame me when it don’t go right…you know there’s gonna be a fight…it’s alright…cause sometimes the good guys win.” Tim and the band bring Blood Moon to a close with an instrumental version of “Twisted Rails,” and I find the instrumental a fitting way to end this disc after the intensity it delivered.

Blood Moon is the 20th disc in Too Slim’s illustrious discography, and it’s definitely an indication that Tim Langford still has a lot to say and bring to the Blues. A renewed sense of purpose finds Tim and the band both eager to get back out and share their music with the fans of Too Slim & the Taildraggers. They will be out on the road in full force this summer, so look for them at a venue near you. Tim’s schedule and an opportunity to order Blood Moon can be found at

Blood Moon rocks from beginning to end, and I would expect nothing less from Tim and the Taildraggers.

--- Kyle Deibler

Toronzo CannonKudos to Toronzo Cannon for bringing true Chicago bliss to my listening ears. His new disc on Alligator Records, The Chicago Way, is just that, Toronzo’s take on contemporary blues in the Windy City. It features amazing storytelling through Toronzo’s eyes, a killer band and blistering guitar licks from the man himself.

Toronzo’s guitar kicks the journey off with an intricate aural assault as he tells us about, “The Pain Around Me.” His neighborhood is rough and Toronzo’s just trying to share his universe with us. “Don’t want to talk about the pain around me, Lord…but this is what I see.” Evil and temptation is everywhere in his neighborhood and it takes an amazing amount of effort to stay true to their calling for both Toronzo and his family. A crack band consisting of Brother John Kattke on B3 and keyboards, Pete Galanis on electric and acoustic rhythm guitar, Larry Williams on bass, and Melvin Carlisle on drums are behind Toronzo and lend their considerable talents to his contemporary sound.

We move on to “Bad Contract,” and here Toronzo is just telling us about a bad deal he made when he decided to get married. “Sign on the line…you only get half back…I signed a bad contract.” She got 50 percent of everything he owned, so it definitely didn’t work out the way Toronzo hoped it would. Move on and move up, Toronzo. Sometimes the only way to do that is to “Walk It Off,” and Toronzo is telling us about that now. “Now, I know my woman…is nice and kind…but now we don’t know…if the baby is his or mine…now I’ve got to walk it off.” Seems she shared her affections with another man, and what Toronzo doesn’t know is that is his girlfriend is that man’s wife. Take your own advice, Toronzo, and walk it off.

The world is full of temptations, but if Toronzo had it his way he’d be sharing his affections with a “Fine Seasoned Woman.” “She kept trying…but I said no…it’s not her fault…cause she don’t know…I like a fine seasoned woman, y’all.” There’s no substitute for the wisdom and experience of an older woman and that’s the way Toronzo likes it. Our tempo slows down slightly to a funkier beat, and Toronzo tells us all about a “Jealous Love.” “It used to be cute…when you check on me…now I can’t stand your insecurities…jealous love…never lasts….always begin…about the past.” Her inability to accept Toronzo for who he is and worries about the women who came before her will doom this relationship to fail, and Toronzo is clear on what will happen in that case. Inevitably this will lead to other problems and Toronzo moves on to discuss those issues in “Midlife Crisis.” “I’m 50 acting like I’m 22…I’m having a midlife crisis.” We all get older, a little grayer, a wrinkle here and there…how we handle it will determine whether we’re having a midlife crisis or not. “I’m going home…to my wife…opened the door…she looked at me twice…holding hands with a younger dude…I guess my wife has it, too…we’re having a midlife crisis.” Toronzo’s blistering fretwork only goes to accentuate the confusion and pain caused by having a midlife crisis.

Our next tune, “Chickens Comin’ Home to Roost,” finds Toronzo struggling with the responsibilities of life and trying to avoid taking them on if he can. “My chickens comin’ home to roost…for what I’ve done y’all…now I’ve got blood on my hands y’all…I knew this day would come.” Toronzo’s fretwork continues to amaze me, but it’s clear here that he’d rather shirk some of the responsibilities in his life than take them on. He moves on to “Strength to Survive,” and Toronzo is confronting the will it takes to reach for the stars and achieve the dreams he’s set forth for himself. “I’m trying to find the strength, y’all…to survive…when I look in the mirror y’all…I don’t like what I see…I see a broken man…staring right back at me…I need a plan…and a little good luck, y’all…to see me through when times get tough.” Survival in a hectic world can be a struggle for all of us, so I’m hoping Toronzo finds what he needs to make it through.

Our tempo slows way down and Toronzo is speaking lovingly to the woman he cares about, a woman who belongs to someone else, in “When Will You Tell Him About Me?” “You said…you’ll leave him…and I believed every lie…it’s been three long years…but I can’t say goodbye…I’m tired of sneaking around…when will you tell him about me?” Leaving her husband for Toronzo implies more responsibility than she seems to think Toronzo will handle and that fear will ultimately cost her the relationship she has with him. Toronzo’s intricate picking accentuates the delicateness of this situation and its need for resolution one way or the other.

“Mrs. From Mississippi” finds Toronzo is a better mood and happy with the woman he loves. “That’s my Mrs. from Mississippi…that’s my boo from Mississippi…she’s as hot as the sun…she’s the only one…that’s my Mrs. from Mississippi.” Toronzo’s happy in every way and not shy about telling anyone about his “Mrs. from Mississippi.”

Toronzo and the band close out The Chicago Way with “I Am,” a tune about the good and bad Toronzo brings to one woman’s life. “I don’t know why we act this way…it happens every single day, Lord…the Devil is laughing…walks up the street to you…so what are you going to do?” Does the good in Toronzo outweigh the bad? The question is never really answered and all that we’re left with is the anguish the question causes in the first place.

The Chicago Way is Toronzo’s first disc for Alligator Records and it’s a good one. Toronzo’s fretwork is outstanding, the band performs flawlessly behind him and his songwriting is above reproach. It’s easy to see why his headliner performance at last year’s Chicago’s Blues Festival was so warmly received given that Toronzo is definitely a talent on the rise. You can find out more about this Chicago Bluesman at and grab a copy of The Chicago Way while you’re there; it’s one of the best contemporary Blues albums you’ll hear all year.

--- Kyle Deibler


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