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Order these featured CDs today:

Victor Wainwright

Little Freddie King

Peter Karp

Samantha Fish

Howell Devine

Heather Newman

Little G Weevil

FreeWorld

Rex Granite

Backtrack Blues Band

Jim Shaneberger Band

Ghalia

Mama SpanX

Ilya Portnov

Jennifer Lyn

Lex Grey

Christine Rosander

Michelle Malone

George Shovlin

 

Joyann ParkerThe name Joyann Parker was a new one to me when her newest CD, Hard To Love (Hopeless Romantics Records) arrived in my mailbox. The quality of music on this disc sent me scurrying to Ms. Parker's website to find out where she's from (the Twin Cities) and whether she's recorded before (yes, she has a previous CD called On The Rocks). She's a powerful sassy, soulful singer who also plays guitar, piano and trumpet, and wrote all 13 of the songs on Hard To Love.

The album starts out with a mid-tempo soulful blues, "Memphis," featuring strong slide guitar from Mark Lamoine. Ms. Parker really shines on the next cut, "Envy," where her tortured vocals cry out about her man seeing another woman. Her voice just plain soars through the octaves throughout this one. and it's easy to feel the pain that she's trying to convey.

Even better is the gospel-ish soul number "Home," with Ms. Parker's voice getting stronger as the song progresses, and we also hear a fine guitar solo from Lamoine. One of the best examples of Ms. Parker's creative songwriting is the sassy blues "Who What When Where Why," on which she asks her man every possible question about his whereabouts and his companions.

She offers another rebuke of her cheating man on "Bluer Than You," on which she shouts out " ... you can hardly wait to make them bluer than you! ... " "Ray" features strong piano work, presumably from bandmember Tim Wick, with a heavy New Orleans second line rhythm.

Ms. Parker flips the situation around on "Evil Hearted," a slow, sultry blues with subtle jazzy guitar from Lamoine. Now it's the woman's turn to break someone's heart.

Hard To Love closes with the title cut, a late-night soulful number with very good tortured vocals from Ms. Parker. She continually reminds us that her man is just so hard to love.

If, like me, you weren't before familiar with Joyann Parker, be sure to search aggressively for Hard To Love. It's a keeper!

--- Bill Mitchell

Victor WainwrightVictor Wainwright is becoming well-known in blues circles as one of the finer blues piano players on the scene today, and for good reason. The man can pound those piano keys. His new act has the same name as his latest album, Victor Wainwright and The Train (Ruf Records), and it's loaded with a dozen blues and boogie woogie numbers. The Savannah, Georgia native stays true to his roots, with plenty of train references throughout the 12 original compositions here.

The band leaves the station with an upbeat number, "Healing,'
 that has a bit of a gospel feel, good piano work and solid horn accompaniment.  That leads us into the vintage-sounding snaky blues of "Wiltshire Grave," with Doug Woolverton's muted trumpet the standout here.

Wainwright summons his best boogie woogie persona on "Train," with his fingers flying across the keys on a breakneck pace. He then slows it down with some of his stronger vocal work on "Dull Your Shine," a song with heavy New Orleans overtones.

I have a strong appreciation for the guitar work of Monster Mike Welch, who appears as a guest guitarist on "Lucille." Yeah, you guessed it. This one's a straight-ahead blues, a tribute to B.B. King, with Welch laying down some monster B.B.-style guitar licks and Wainwright shouting out the blues. Another favorite number is "Righteous," which ramps up to a feverish, rollicking gospel number. "I'll Start Tomorrow" also shows off what Wainwright learned in church, lessons that are applied here to a fast-paced party tune.

The last two cuts --- "Sunshine" and "That's Love To Me" --- are decent, but for my tastes they drag on a little too long at a combined 15 minutes. That's just the ex-DJ in me when I wanted every song to fit into a nice three or four minute box, so your results will likely vary. Overall, I enjoyed Victor Wainwright and The Train. If you really dig good blues piano, then you will, too.

--- Bill Mitchell


Little Freddie KingLittle Freddie King hails from New Orleans, but the McComb, Mississippi-born singer/guitarist’s lean, mean, unique brand of blues has always seemed like a better fit in a Mississippi juke joint than in the Crescent City, where he’s resided since his teenage years. Despite that, King has thrived in his adopted hometown with his music, which actually owes more of a debt to Lightnin’ Hopkins and John Lee Hooker than his namesake.

You Make My Night (MadeWright Records) is King’s fourth live recording. While that’s a bit unusual, it’s actually a good thing because while his studio efforts are always entertaining, King is at his best in a live setting with an appreciative audience. That's certainly the case here with this well-received set recorded at the d.b.a. music club on Frenchman Street in New Orleans. King is backed on this hour-long romp by his regular band, longtime cohort Wade Wright (drums), William Jordan (bass), and Bobby Lewtis Ditullio (harp).

The 11-song set includes several of King’s popular original tunes, including the Lightnin’-esque “Can’t Do Nothin’ Baby,” the funky “Tough Frog to Swallow,” the delightful “Chicken Dance” and “Sing Sang Sung,” plus two great slow blues “Bus Station” and “Standing At The Door,” both of which allow ample room for King to show his guitar skills. King covers Hooker’s “Hobo Blues,” and he and the band have a great time with the standards “Baby Please Don’t Go,” “Big Boss Man,” and “Wang Dang Doodle.” King’s take on the Fats Domino classic, “Hello Josephine,” is a pleasant surprise, steering away from the straight-forward blues approach of the rest of the disc for a bit of a Crescent City-R&B rhythm.

King and the band have an uncanny musical rapport, obviously built from years of playing this sort of gig, King’s guitar and Ditullio’s harmonica playing complement each other very well. It’s clear from the audience’s enthusiastic response that this performance was an entertaining one to catch in person, and that is captured well on the recording as well. You Make My Night shows that some of the best examples of the traditional Mississippi blues can be found in New Orleans these days.

--- Graham Clarke

IBC 33For the past 34 years, the International Blues Challenge has been one of The Blues Foundation’s major events, and it has really blossomed in the past few years into an annual showcase of the best new blues acts in the U.S. and worldwide. Each January, blues musicians and industry vets make their way to Memphis for what has become the world’s largest assembly of blues musicians. Dozens of I.B.C. winners and finalists, as well as other competitors have used the the challenge as a springboard to recording contracts, festival appearances, and international success.

In recent years, The Blues Foundation has partnered with Frank Roszak Promotions to release a CD that has compiled some of the I.B.C.’s finest performances from the winners and finalists in each year’s Band and Solo/Duo Divisions. Late last year, some of the 2017 event’s standout moments were released on the International Blues Challenge #33CD, so people who weren’t able to attend can get a taste of the action with 14 tracks, half from the Band category and half from the Solo/Duo category.

First place in the 2017 Band Division went to Dawn Tyler Watson and her band, who were representing the Montreal Blues Society. They are also the first cut on the compilation with Watson’s “Shine On,” a gospel-flavored track which should light your fire even if your wood is wet. Band Division finalists Johnny Fink & The Intrusion are featured with their catchy shuffle tune, “Let’s Hear Some Blues.” The Sobo Blues Band, representing the Israel Blues Society, offer the raw electric country blues “Catfish Boogie,” and the 2nd place Band, The Souliz Band featuring Sugar and Spice (Suncoast Blues Society) present the spicy and feisty “Good Lovin’ (Hot & Fresh From the Oven).”

“Onions Ain’t The Only Thing” is a soul/blues selection from Chicago keyboardist Sam Joyner and his band (Vicksburg Blues Society), 3rd place band Rae Gordon & the Backseat Drivers (Cascade Blues Society) are represented by the funky “Elbow Grease, and the hard-hitting “Dangerous” comes from blues rocker King Bee (Magic City Blues Society).

The Solo/Duo category is also well represented, with tracks from category winner Al Hill, representing the Nashville Blues Society (the piano-driven “Don’t Dig Today”), Cape Fear Blues Society representative Randy McQuay (the impressive “’Til I Get To Memphis,” runner-up Brody Buster from the Kansas City Blues Society (“2029,” a lively look at blues in the apocalypse), and Triangle Blues Society’s one-woman-band Ruth Wyand (the moody “I Don’t Have Proof”).

There are also three excellent solo blues guitar tracks from Felix Slim, a young Spanish guitarist (representing the Asociacion Musical Blues Hondarribia) who sounds like he was transplanted right out of the 1930s on his own “I Hate You Because I Love You,” Wes Lee from The Mississippi Delta Blues Society of Indianola (the haunting “Chains That Bind”), and Sugar Brown (Toronto Blues Society), a scholar and professor of East Asian history in his day job, who closes the disc with the road-weary “Meet Me In The Country.”

After listening to this interesting and entertaining collection, I’m glad I didn’t have to pick a winner in either category because all of the songs and performances are excellent. This collection is a fantastic way for any blues lover to get a finger on the pulse of today’s blues scene. There’s obviously plenty of life left in the genre, based on these tracks.

--- Graham Clarke

Forrest McDonaldForrest McDonald has been hooked on the blues since the age of seven, when he first heard Josh White perform. As a teenager, he regularly attended the Newport Jazz & Folk Festivals where he was further immersed. He later was a member of Wadsworth Mansion, who had a Top 20 hit with “Sweet Mary I’m Coming Home,” and later became an in-demand studio guitarist, which eventually led to him working at Muscle Shoals Sound Studio, where he played guitar on Bob Seger’s smash hit, “Old Time Rock & Roll,” and Bobby Womack’s album, Roads of Life.

Since 1991, McDonald has led his own band, The Forrest McDonald Band, and has released 13 albums on his own World Talent Records. The latest is Standing My Ground, a “by request” album which basically captures the core songs from the band’s current live shows. McDonald and his bandmates (Lee Gammon – bass, John Hanes – drums, Pix Ensign – harmonica, and Becky Wright – vocals) actually re-recorded some of the band’s most requested songs for this set, which includes 13 tracks, 11 originals and two covers.

Wright contributed backing vocals to McDonald’s last release, Turnaround Blues, but handles lead vocals on all the tracks this time around, and she does a magnificent job, easily handling the uptempo numbers like the funky “Guitar String Blues,” the rollicking shuffle “Chicken Scratch Boogie,” the Second Line-driven title track, “Turnaround Blues,” the blues rockers “Take It To The Top,” and “Till The Morning Light,” the rousing closer “Riding On The Blues Train,” and the band’s dandy cover of Big Joe Turner’s “Piney Brown.”

Wright is equally effective on the slower numbers as well, such as the slow-burning reading of Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ “I Put a Spell On You,” the smoky ballad “Certified Blue,” the haunting “I Am A Stone,” “The Feeling Is Gone,” a midtempo burner, and the soulful “River of Tears.”

McDonald wrote all of the originals, putting a fresh and distinctive spin on familiar blues topics. His guitar work is peerless --- skilled, versatile, and never more than it needs to be. The band gets strong support on various tracks from drummers John McKnight and Rob Robertie, guitarist Barry Richman and Valery Lunichkin, harmonica players Little Ronnie Owens and Jon Leibman, sax players Jeff Shelloff and Chuck Williams, and organist Rich Ianucci.

For longtime fans, Standing My Ground is a fine representation of The Forrest McDonald Band’s latest and finest work. For newcomers, it serves as a perfect introduction to one of the strongest blues rock bands currently practicing.

--- Graham Clarke

Peter KarpAs good as Peter Karp’s previous release, Alabama Town, was, his latest effort, Blue Flame (Rose Cottage Records), is a little bit better. I’m not sure what the difference is. Both albums feature Karp’s catchy and clever songwriting, his soulful voice, and his instrumental talent (guitar, organ, piano, accordion, harmonica), and many of the guest artists on his previous outing return for Blue Flame (Paul Carbonara, Mick Taylor, Todd Wolfe, Dennis Gruenling), plus a couple of new faces, keyboardist Dave Keyes and Fabulous T-Bird Kim Wilson. The music ranges from blues to R&B, soul, rock, and Americana --- just like last time.

For sure, the 13 tracks featured on Blue Flame are all keepers. Wilson’s harmonica is a highlight of the funky rock opener, “Rollin’ On A Log,” a tune catchy enough to be a hit if this were a perfect world. “Train O’ Mine” is a driving blues rocker with Gruenling manning the harp and Keyes on piano, while the very different love song “Your Prettiness” features a jazzy Latin rhythm and an entertaining vocal turn from Karp, and “Valentine’s Day” is a slow burning blues ballad, complemented by Karp’s greasy slide guitar.

“Treat Me Right” is a mid-tempo blues shuffle with some fierce fret work from Karp, and the heartfelt ballad “The Turning Point” showcases Mick Taylor’s guitar work, which always a pleasure to hear. The 90-miles-a-minute “Loose Ends” is a nice change of pace with Karp’s breakneck vocal, Carbonara’s guitar and John Zarra’s mandolin, while Karp channels Elmore James on the blues rocker “The Arson’s Match.” The gentle ballad “From Where I Stand” blends country and blues and “You Know” is stripped-down blues with Karp’s vocals and guitar spotlighted with Gruenling’s harmonica.

Karp’s first-rate skills on the piano are on display on the stirring rocker “The Nietzsche Lounge,” and Karp (on accordion) is joined by Wolfe on guitar and Albert Weisman on B3 for the pop-flavored “Round and Around.” Closing the album is “Young Girl,” a sweaty dobro-and-percussion-driven delta blues.

Several of the songs on Blue Flame were previously recorded by Karp in the early 2000s on albums that saw limited release, but it’s hard to imagine those earlier versions being better than what’s presented here. That being said, I think that the reason I prefer Blue Flame to its predecessor is a logical one to these ears. Though Karp’s musical vision spans quite a broad range of genres, this effort seems to have more of a focus on the blues, and that’s never a bad thing. If you don’t pick up Blue Flame at the next opportunity, you’re missing one of the year’s best.

--- Graham Clarke

Samantha FishFor Samantha Fish’s second 2017 release, Belle of the West (Ruf Records), the singer / guitarist / songwriter returned to Zebra Ranch Studios in Hernando, Mississippi, where she recorded several tracks on her 2015 effort, Wild Heart. She’s also reunited with Luther Dickinson, who produced 2015’s Wild Heart, and the result is a grittier, earthier release than her earlier 2017 release, Chills and Fever.

Fish is joined by a bevy of local artists --- Dickinson (guitar/mandolin), Lightnin’ Malcolm (guitar/harmonica/vocals), Shardé Thomas (fife/drums/vocals),  Jimbo Mathus (Fender Rhodes/harmonica/vocals), Amy LaVere (upright bass/vocals), Lillie Mae (violin/vocals), Tikrya Jackson (drums/vocals), and Trina Raimey (drums) --- and brings eight excellent new original tunes along with three covers from Mathus, Lillie Mae, and R.L. Burnside.  Like their previous collaboration, Fish and Dickinson not only play the blues but also venture into roots and Americana on occasion.

The opening track, “American Dream,” sets the tone for the album with a smooth Mississippi Hill Country groove (compliments of Thomas’ fife, along with drums and violin.  “Blood In The Water” is haunting, with the ghostly backing vocals and the violin and fife punctuating Fish’s anguished vocal, and “Need You More” has a relaxed groove with a slightly country feel which continues with the next track, “Cowtown,” albeit with a little more of a roots-rock edge. 

The brooding “Daughters” is a somber tale of a struggling family, and the sultry ballad “Don’t Say You Love Me” features a fine vocal performance from Fish that blends passion and cynicism.  The driving “No Angels” will get toes tapping and “Gone For Good,” the album closer, is a feisty acoustic blues stomper.

The cover tunes include Mathus’ title track, which shows that Fish would not be a difficult fit on the country side of the music aisle.  She also teams up with Malcolm on an inspired read of the Burnside standard, “Poor Black Mattie,” with Malcolm taking lead vocal and Fish providing the responding vocal.  Lillie Mae provides backing vocals and violin to her own “Nearing Home,” a gentle ballad that could potentially raise goose bumps.

Though Chills and Fever garnered a lot of attention early last year, blues fans should definitely not overlook Belle of the West, which includes some of Samantha Fish’s finest work to date.  “Rising star” may not be the best description for her anymore. She has definitely arrived at the pinnacle.

--- Graham Clarke

HowellDevineI really enjoyed the 2014 release from Howell DevineModern Sounds of Ancient Juju, but I think I have enjoyed their latest release, Howl (Little Village Foundation) even more.  The trio (Joshua Howell – vocals/guitar/harmonica, Pete Devine – drums, Joe Kyle, Jr. – bass) are still in place and as potent as before. This time around the group ventured to Greaseland Studios (which apparently, never closes its doors), where they are joined by Greaseland’s own Kid Andersen, who plays organ on a couple of tracks, Danny Brown on tenor sax, and Fil Lorenz on baritone sax.

The trio also expands their sound a bit on this latest effort, moving away slightly from their usual look at traditional blues and roots and adding some vintage R&B and funk to the mix.  Andersen plays B3 on the band’s version of Don Covay’s “Sookie Sookie,” recreating it in the soul-jazz mode that Grant Green adopted for his sensational early ’60s version, but further altering it to accommodate Howell’s harmonica.  It’s a sensational version with Andersen’s B3, Howell’s harp, and Devine and Kyle’s rock steady backing. 

Also in that R&B/funk mindset is their tasty reading of the Meters’ “Funky Miracle,” which the band really tears up, and their take on R.L. Burnside’s “Going Down South” also benefits from a slippery, funky feel from the rhythm section, as does their interpretation of Hound Dog Taylor’s “Sadie.”  Hopefully, the trio will continue to occasionally venture into this style of music with future recordings.  

However, those who enjoyed the group’s more traditional fare won’t be disappointed because covers of tunes from Sonny Boy Williamson (“The Key”), Robert Johnson (“Come On In My Kitchen”), Blind Blake (“Rope Stretching Blues”), and a subtle, but powerful interpretation of traditional folk blues “Boat’s Up The River” are superb.  Their own tunes hold up well with their classic cover material.  Howell penned the moody “Sirenic Woman” and the bluesy closer, “PM Blues.”

Howl finds HowellDevine still offering their inventive approach to traditional blues, but venturing into more urban and funky territory with very successful results.  To these ears, this band is one that deserves to heard by a much wider audience, and this new release is solid evidence of that.

--- Graham Clarke

Heather NewmanHeather Newman first attracted attention as bassist/vocalist for the Nick Schnebelen Band, thanks to her vocal talents being featured prominently on the guitarist’s Live at Knucklehead’s Vol 1 album from 2016. In early 2017, she stepped away from Schnebelen’s band and stepped up with her own band (Keith Ladd – guitar, Ryan Flemmer – bass, Cole Dillingham – drums). In late 2017, she released her debut recording, Burn Me Alive (VizzTone), a powerful set of rocking blues with a touch of soul.

The swampy Southern rocker “Willie James” kicks off the disc, Newman’s vocal burning with intensity. The Diddley-esque “Bring the Swing” and the shuffle “Howling For Love” are more blues-oriented and Newman shows her vocal versatility on both tracks. The title track is a sultry slow burner that Newman really sinks her teeth into, and Schnebelen stops by to add guitar to the smooth shuffle “High Mountain Blues.”

“How Many Times?” is a slower tune, with an idiosyncratic, almost jazzy tempo, but Newman’s vocal makes it distinctive, and she really shines on the retro ballad “I Don’t Know Why” on which you can really feel the ache in her heart. The after-hours “Dirty Blues” is another standout, with smoky saxophone from Michael Lefever and a smoldering vocal from Newman. The disc wraps up as strongly as it began with the funky “Share Your Love,” punctuated by Flemmer’s sparkling keyboards and the feisty “I’m Through With You.”

Burn Me Alive is an excellent debut release for Heather Newman, who blues fans should be hearing much more from in the near future, thanks to her powerful and versatile vocals and her impressive songwriting skills.

--- Graham Clarke

Little G WeevilLittle G. Weevil’s latest release, Something Poppin’ (VizzTone) is different from his previous releases, which mostly focused on Weevil’s take on traditional blues. This time around, the Atlanta-based singer/guitarist also incorporates soul, funk, and R&B, inspired by the classic sounds of early ’70s R&B and soul, as well as rap and hip hop. Weevil wrote or co-wrote 10 of the 11 tracks here, and is backed by a tough-as-nails band (Daniel Harper – drums, Marton Pfeff – bass, Matyas Premecz – keys) with assistance by Laci Borsodi (rhythm guitar), Danny Del Toro – harmonica, backing vocalists Rebeka Easley Ellis and Sharika Allen Brown, and rapper Dulzura.

The driving blues rocker “Here I Come Knocking” kicks off the disc in electrifying fashion, followed by the R&B-influenced title track, smooth blues and soul with a distinctive chorus that stays with you. “See Me In The Country” is memorable as well, effortlessly blending blues, rock, and country with a slice of funk, and “How Do You Want Me To Deal With This” is a full-fledged soul burner with a strong vocal from Weevil and a nice keyboard break from Premecz, whose keyboard skills are also front and center for the funky follow-up, “You Can’t Say Nothing.”

“Scrub” is unlike anything else in Weevil’s music catalog. Featuring a rap from Dulzura, Weevil and the backing singers handle the choruses and the band keeps a steady, and funky rhythm going. Maybe not your dad’s blues song, but it’s definitely the blues in a 21st century mode. Weevil also give Curtis Mayfield’s “Pusherman” a lively update while keeping the song’s original vibe intact, and the original “Crawlin’” is a sharp and effective blues rocker that slowly builds in intensity.

The ballad “I Don’t Want To Feel The Rain” features another strong vocal from Weevil with excellent support from the backing vocalists, and the closer, “Top Model,” is a fierce hard-charging rocker that closes out the album in style.

While Something Poppin’ is quite different from what listeners have heard previously from Little G. Weevil, it’s a superb album and it shows that he’s ready and willing to do his part to move the blues into the 21st century. Based on the power and quality of this disc, it should be a smooth transition.

--- Graham Clarke

FreeWorldThe Memphis band FreeWorld recently celebrated their 30th anniversary in 2017, and also released their seventh album, What It Is (SwirlDisc), a sparkling 11-song set with ten original tunes. The band’s influences are many, ranging from Tower of Power to Booker T. & the M.G.’s, Steely Dan, The Meters, The Grateful Dead, John Coltrane, and Frank Zappa, and these influences are easily heard throughout the disc.

The opening track, “Deeper By The Minute,” really sets the pace for the disc, seamlessly mixing funk and soul with rock n’ roll, fueled by those wonderful horns. The upbeat “Find A Better Way” is next, a bit more on the rock side of things with a muscular solo from guitarist Andy Tate, who really blows the doors off of the next track, the excellent soul-blues-rock blowout “Shrimp N’ Grits,” the first of four instrumentals on the disc.

“Dinja Babe” has a nice pop feel with the tight vocal harmonies, and “It’s Alright” is a funk and soul nugget that surely would have been a hit back in the day when this kind of music saturated the radio. “For The Moment,” the second instrumental effectively leans toward the jazz side of the aisle, and the band does a wonderful job on the album’s lone cover, The Band’s “The Shape I’m In,” which is followed by another instrumental, the funky “Sideswiped.”

The rollicking “Another Sunday Night” really captures the band’s essence, as well as that of the city they call home. The album’s lone ballad is next, “Believe,” which features a guest appearance from vocalist Stephani McCoy, followed by the closer, “Eve Waits,” a highly creative instrumental foray into jazz that adds a few Eastern influences to the musical gumbo.

FreeWorld (Richard Cushing – bass/vocals, Green – tenor sax, Climie – tenor/baritone/alto sax, Tate –guitars/sitar/glissintar/mandolin/dobro/cuatro/keys, Chris Stephenson – keys/vocals, Dover – trumpet/percussion, Greg Lundy – drums/percussion, and Freedman Steort - trombone) are pretty much a Bluff City institution by now, and show no signs of slowing their pace even after 30 years. What It Is is a marvelous musical journey that will satisfy all comers.

--- Graham Clarke

Rex GraniteThe Rex Granite Band features the amazing slide guitar work of the band’s namesake and the awesome vocals of Sarah Benck. The band recently represented Nebraska at the 2018 International Blues Challenge and released their second album, Spirit / Matter/ Truth / Lies, a few months before. The new disc features ten songs, nine originals and one cover, and their musical style encompasses blues, rock, soul, Americana, and a bit of gospel flavor thrown in.

“Stop Doing What You Want” a driving blues rocker opens the disc, and is followed by the mid-tempo “What You’re Missing,” a funky rocker with a sassy vocal turn from Benck and the hard-hitting “Cadillac Car.” Next up is Percy Mayfield’s “Please Send Me Someone To Love,” wonderfully re-imagined as a stripped-down slow burner that slowly builds in intensity, featuring a superlative vocal from Benck and masterful slide guitar from Granite.

“Sail Away” is a two-parter that has a smooth laid-back feel and Granite’s slide guitar really gives the first part a Caribbean feel, while the second part has a more haunting, ominous tone and the vocals and slide guitar slowly build to an eerie climax. The rousing “SteamRoller” is a horn-fueled gospel-flavored boogie track and “Move Along” is a easy going blues shuffle, while the title track is a stirring ’70s style rocker. The sinister “Two Trains” addresses the good vs. evil struggle that’s so prevalent in the blues world. Granite’s slide soars and Benck’s vocal really hits home.

The band (Granite – guitars, Benck – vocals/guitar, James Carrig – bass, and Anton Davis – drums) are joined on several tracks by guests Daniel Crawford (piano), Lou DeLuca (harmonica), Bucky McCann (sax), Michael Gurciullo (trumpet), and drummer Doug Montera.

Granite, Benck, and the rhythm section have a interesting and compelling sound. The rhythm section can really lock into a groove, Benck’s vocals are powerful and personable, and I could listen to Granite’s slide work all day long. Their latest release should be must-listening for blues fans.

--- Graham Clarke

Backtrack Blues BandThe Backtrack Blues Band was an early force on the Florida blues scene, beginning in the early ’80s. Now celebrating their 37th year of existence, and powered by the two-fisted punch of frontman Sonny Charles’ harmonica and the dynamic guitar work of Kid Royal, the band continues to break new ground with their tasty mix of Chicago and Texas blues. Last year the band captured a powerful live performance at at their hometown St. Petersburg’s historic Palladium Theatre, and has released it as a CD/DVD called Make My Home in Florida (Harpo Records).

The nine-song set consists of four original tunes penned by Charles along with five covers, including a pair from Sonny Boy Williamson II (“Checkin’ On My Baby” and “Your Funeral and My Trial”), Little Walter (“Nobody But You”), T-Bone Walker (“T-Bone Shuffle”), and B.B. King (“Woke Up This Morning”). Charles handles vocals on the Sonny Boy and Little Walter tracks, while Kid Royal sings on the latter two, and both get ample space to shine on their instruments of choice.

The four originals, all written by Charles in the Chicago Blues style, fit neatly with the cover tunes. The title track is a standout slow blues with a fine guitar solo, while “Heavy Built Woman is a humorous mid-tempo shuffle. “Shoot My Rooster” is a laidback venture inspired by a noisy rooster at Charles’ home in the Virgin Islands, and the set closer is the swinging “Tell Your Daddy.”

This is a powerful set --- nothing fancy at all --- just a great band playing the blues and playing them well. Charles is a charismatic frontman and dynamite harp player, and Royal does an excellent job in a variety of blues styles. The rhythm section (Little Johnny Walter – rhythm guitar, Joe Bencomo – drums, Stick Davis – bass) is exemplary. The DVD offers the same performance and the camera work and production is first-rate. If you like to watch and listen, too, then it’s a well-spent 50 minutes. Either way that listeners decide to enjoy Make My Home in Florida, they will be pleased with the results.

--- Graham Clarke

JSBOut of Western Michigan, the Jim Shaneberger Band is a powerhouse blues rock trio (Shaneberger – guitars/lead and background vocals, Jeff Baldus – bass/background vocals, Steve Harris – drums/background vocals, with guest drummer Karl Schantz on one track) that recently released their second album, Above and Below. The new release showcases the band’s powerful attack and their original songwriting, all nine songs were written or co-written by Shaneberger.

The opening track, “My Way,” is a rugged rocker that reminded me a lot of Dennis Jones’ music with that driving Hendrixian guitar, and the scorching “Indifference” and “Above and Below” both touch on current events and a call for peace and an end to violence. The ballad “Bright Side” shifts the album to a slower, more reflective pace for a brief time, before the roadhouse blues shuffle “Ain’t Your Daddy’s Blues” kicks things to a higher gear.

“I Can’t Sleep” is along the same lines as the opening track, but with a healthy dose of funk thrown in for good measure, and the thunderous “Way Down South” has a hypnotic, Hill Country feel to it. The band has a good time with “Just Sayin’, Bro,” a loose-limbed instrumental that gives everyone room to strut their stuff. “Whole Lotta Soul,” the album closer, mixes blues, soul, funk, and a taste of jazz, really showing off the versatility of the band.

Above and Below is a fine release from Shaneberger and his bandmates, showing that they have a flair for sharp songwriting and that they work well in several different musical settings. Hopefully, this release will lead to bigger and better things for JSB.

--- Graham Clarke

GhaliaBelgian singer/songwriter/guitarist Ghalia Vauthier has built a solid fan base busking on the streets of her native Brussels and with a pair of early bands, The Naphtalines and Voodoo Casino, with whom she released her first album a couple of years ago. With a serious jones for high energy R&B, she ventured to the states, traveling from Chicago to Memphis to Nashville to the Mississippi Delta to New Orleans, where she settled in and connected with local icons Johnny Maestro & Mama’s Boys. The chemistry was obvious and led to Let The Demons Out (Ruf Records), the scorching debut from Ghalia & Mama’s Boys.

The album kicks off on a rockin’ n’ rollin’ note with the thumping “4AM Fried Chicken,” and the band really cooks behind Vauthier’s smoky, sassy vocal. The title track follows and it has a sweaty, swampy vibe backing her passionate singing, while the funky “Press That Trigger” shows her sultry, sexy side. “Have You Seen My Woman” is a driving blues that finds Vauthier singing from the guy’s perspective trying to find his mate, and “Hoodoo Evil Man” is a sizzling hot down-home blues rocker that gives harmonica wizard Maestro and guitarist Smokehouse Brown room to strut their stuff.

The slow burner “Addiction” is a highlight, with Vauthier’s soulful, world-weary vocal and Maestro’s mournful harmonica. The catchy boogie rocker “All The Good Things” stands out as well. “Walkin’” is a Chicago-styled rocker that finds Vauthier sharing lead vocals with Maestro, backed by Brown’s searing slide guitar, and “See That Man Alone” is a funky rocker that showcases guitarist Brown and the steady-rocking rhythm section Dean Zucchero (bass) and Rob Lee (drums). The disc closes with two strong tracks, the atmospheric delta-based “Hey Little Baby” and the raucous “Hiccup Boogie.”

The album’s lone cover is Vaunthier’s sexy reading of Rudy Toomb’s “I’m Shakin’,” made popular back in the day by Little Willie John and later by The Blasters and more recently by Jack White.

Let The Demons Out is a highly satisfying debut effort from Ghalia & Mama’s Boys, who seem to go together like peas and carrots. This release has everything a blues fan could want --- excellent songs, a powerhouse band, and a talented, charismatic singer. Here’s hoping that this collaboration continues in the future.

--- Graham Clarke

Mama SpanXThe group Mama SpanX was assembled by singer/songwriter Nikki Armstrong, putting together some of her favorite musicians from the East and West Coast’s R&B, rock, and funk genres (the late soul-jazz guitarist Melvin Sparks gave Armstrong her distinctive moniker).  Sparks would definitely be pleased with the collective’s first release, State of Groove, a ferocious nine-song set of blues, funk, and soul that pays tribute to pioneers like James Brown, Ike & Tina Turner, Sly & the Family Stone.

Ms. Armstrong and the band (Steve Johnson – guitars, Harlan Spector – B3, piano,  Moog, Julie Sax – alto/baritone saxes, flute, Steve Sadd – tenor/soprano saxes, David Abercrombie – bass, Ben Beckley – drums, piano/musical director) rip through a strong nine song set with eight originals and one cover….well, make that a half-cover since it’s Lou Donaldson’s funky soul-jazz instrumental “Alligator Boogaloo,” supplemented by new lyrics from Armstrong.

The opener, “Rocket,” is a horn-driven mid-tempo funk number that is reminiscent of Tower of Power’s catalog, “Wild Emotion” sounds like a long-lost late ’60s/early ’70s R&B single, while “Crawl” mixes a little bit of the blues with greasy funk.  The blues ballad “Wrong Side of the Garden” arrives mid-album and Armstrong give a fine vocal performance with subtle guitar backing from Johnson and smooth backing vocals from the band.

“Thinkin’” brings to mind James Brown, especially those tasty horns and Johnson’s Jimmy Nolan-esque guitar work, while “Anywhere You Are” is a lovely soulful ballad with a tender vocal from Armstrong and soft backing from Spector on piano.  The irresistible title track closes the disc on a funky note with the band getting ample room to strut their stuff.

State of Groove will bring a smile to the faces of those music fans who dig the old school sounds of jazz, funk, and soul of the late ’60s and ’70s.  There are still a few bands who play it like they used to, and Mama SpanX does it like few others do.

--- Graham Clarke

Ilya PortnovIlya Portnov is a 28-year-old harmonica player who grew up in Russia, but came to study at the New England Conservatory in Boston, obtaining a Master’s degree, the first accepted with the diatonic harmonica as the main instrument.  While living in Russia, he was influenced by his first harmonica teacher, who influenced Portnov’s technique and introduced him to the music of other harmonica masters such as Jason Ricci, Howard Levy, and Carlos del Junco. 

Now based on the West Coast, Portnov recently released his debut album, a highly enjoyable and entertaining all-instrumental effort called Strong Brew.  Recorded at Kid Andersen’s Greaseland Studios in San Jose, Portnov offers up nine splendid tunes backed by a formidable cast that includes Andersen (guitar, bass), Chris Burns (piano, keyboards), and June Core (drums, percussion) with guest appearances by Rob Vye (guitar), Ben Andrews (violin), and Robby Yamilov (bass).

The album consists of seven originals from Portnov and they include the opener, “Sunny Afternoon Blues,” a jazzy blues featuring Andrews on violin, “Surfin’ the Baltic Sea,” a cool surf rocker, the lovely waltz “Dance of a Lonely Doll,” and the Windy City blues shuffle “Behind the Wall.”  The title track pays tribute to the legendary jazz clarinetist Sidney Bechet, while the tango “1928” also features Andrews on violin, and the rousing Diddleyesque closer “Till The Early Morning” closes the disc out.

Portnov covers Rev. Gary Davis’ jumping “Cincinnati Flow Rag,” which features some nimble fretwork from Nye and piano from Burns, and a popular Russian song from the 1940s, “In a Town Garden,” a gentle, understated ballad with Burns on organ.

Strong Brew is an excellent first effort from Ilya Portnov, and one that can be enjoyed by music fans of multiple genres.  There’s something to satisfy everyone on this outstanding release.

--- Graham Clarke

Jennifer LynBlues rockers Jennifer Lyn & The Groove Revival are a power-packed trio (Lyn – lead vocals/guitar, Kevin Holm – drums, Darren King – bass) based in North Dakota. Lyn’s first musical love is the blues, but she’s absorbed many other musical styles from her family as well as from the time she’s spent living in different places across the country. Those various styles come into play on her latest release, Badlands, a tight ten-song set of original tunes that shows off the band’s musical versatility.

Jennifer Lyn is not one to be trifled with, and if you have any question about that then the opening track, “Burned It Down,” should confirm it. This energetic song of love gone wrong was a perfect choice for the lead-off position. The equally hard-hitting title track is next, driven by Lyn’s soaring guitar work, while “Let Go This Time” has a bit of a pop feel, thanks to the backing vocals, but she still rips it up on her guitar solo. The lovely ballad “Give Into You” shows Lyn’s softer side.

The southern rocker “Muddy Waters” is catchy and deftly mixes blues and country. Likewise, the intro to “Anything But Me” has a passing debt to the Allman’s “Whipping Post,” but launches into a more hard rock-driven direction and features a strong vocal from Lyn. “Gonna Let You Go” continues that southern rock vibe, while the two songs that bookend it, “I’m Running To You” and “West to Bismarck” are examples of blues rock at its best. The closer, “Goodnight Sweet Darling” is a haunting ballad that finds Lyn paying tribute to her folk and country roots.

Badlands was produced by Richard Torrance, who recorded several albums for Leon Russell’s Shelter Records and Capitol Records during the ’70s. He also contributes backing vocals, guitar, dobro, and keyboards on several tracks, while Eric Kubischta contributes slide guitar on “Goodnight Sweet Darling.”

Jennifer Lyn proves that she will be a force to be reckoned with in the blues rock world with Badlands. She’s a gifted singer and guitarist who’s also capable of digging deep from within as a songwriter.

--- Graham Clarke

Lex GreyNew York City vocalist and force of nature Lex Grey and the Urban Pioneers return with their seventh album, Usual Suspects (Pioneer Productions). Grey, who possesses one of the most powerful and versatile voices in the blues pulls out the stops on this effort, moving from raw and ragged rock and blues to smooth and silky soul with ease, and she’s backed by a superlative band that is as chameleon-like as she is. She wrote or co-wrote all nine songs on this stellar set, which is a mix of blues, rock, soul, country, even a little jazz.

The moody title track leads off the disc, and Grey really shows her vocal range on this one. “Chow Down” is a rowdy show stopper loaded to the brim with double entendres, and is followed by “Dirty Secret,” a slow burning blues ballad. “SRV” is a roadhouse rocker paying tribute to Stevie Ray Vaughan. The ominous “Warrior Squaw” is next, and it has an ethereal, somewhat psychedelic feel, while “Sunshine And Blue” leans in a jazz direction, thanks in part by Grey’s nuanced vocal and Chris Pasin’s trumpet fills.

“Cheap Thrills” is a fun and funky story song about the formation of a band that mixes steel guitar (Kenny Siegel) and fiddle (Kaia Updike) with a Diddley beat, and is followed by the Hooker-esque boogie rocker “My Jellyroll” (nice harp from Rick Surrano, Sr.). The closing ballad, “Renegade Heart,” has a Latin flavor, thanks to ukelele from Foggy Otis, sax from Walter Tates, Jr., and a crisp guitar solo from Vic Mix.
Mix appears on all tracks and is joined on others by Updike (bass / flute / piano / keyboard / bass / violin / backing vocals), Brian Dewan (keyboards / accordion), John Holland (drums / percussion / backing vocals), Tim Farrell (bass / backing vocals), Per Bergquist (bass), Ed Was (upright bass), Mike Ragiani (drums), Matt Messenger (drums), Pasin, Tates, Surrano, Siegel, and Otis.

Lex Grey never ceases to amaze with her impressive set of pipes, and her songwriting is equally impressive. Her music always makes for interesting and entertaining listening. Usual Suspects is no exception to the rule. If you’ve not experienced this talented band, this is a great place to get started. Prepare to be captivated.

--- Graham Clarke

Christine RosanderSinger/songwriter Christine Rosander was inspired to sing by her mother, a piano teacher, singer, and a voice major in college. She learned the value of the bond between life, love, and family from her grandfather, she learned how to take a song and make it her own from her voice teacher. She has worked as a music teacher for 20 years, and with her latest album, Been A Long Time (Devcat Records), Rosander has created an intensely personal statement that acknowledges those influences in her life and the sometimes treacherous path that her life has followed.

Rosander wrote all 14 tracks, several being co-written with her cousin Debra Alsberge and Patricia Bahia. The music has a gentle quality that blends Americana with blues and jazz on occasion and Rosander’s lovely voice carries the day. She pays tribute to her mother on tracks like “Honey For My Soul,” “Love Remains,” and “My Heart Believes It’s So,” while songs like “Soul And Bone,” “I Wanna Be,” “Hard Habit,” “That’s How The Story Goes,” and “Love Me The Way That I Am” relate her experiences with an abusive marriage and the effects of alcoholism and addiction on that relationship.

Rosander reflects on the qualities of love on the optimistic “Love Is The Answer” and “The Bitter And The Sweet.” On the title track, she honors her late grandfather’s influence on her life, and wrote “You Made Me Who I Am,” in recognition of her parents for their 50th wedding anniversary, acknowledging her deep love and appreciation for all they did for her. The lovely spiritual “Traveling Mercy” is a prayer for guidance and safety that we all could use in times of crisis.

Rosander’s beautiful and heartfelt vocals are perfect (with excellent supporting vocals from Ross Chitwood, Joel Dalton, Sean Holt, producer Mick Taras, and Bahia) and the musical support (Doug Petty – piano/accordion, Edwin Livingston – bass, Paul Alexander Gonzalez or Aaron Sterling – drums, Taras – guitar/banjo/mandolin/co-producer with Rosander, plus guest musicians Kevin King, Justin Asparus, Gary Hess, Aaron Serfaty, and Charlie Patnoe) is marvelous.

Been A Long Time is an album of simple beauty. More than anything, it reminds me of those popular early ’70s albums of Carole King. This is a release that deserves to be heard.

--- Graham Clarke

RD OlsonIn Arizona, vocalist/harp master R.D. Olson is known as “The Real Deal.” A 40-plus year vet of the Arizona music scene and two-time participant in the International Blues Challenge (winning the Arizona Blues Challenge in 2014 and the Northern Arizona Blues Challenge in 2015), Olson was inducted in the Arizona Blues Hall of Fame in 2015. Keep Walking Woman is Olson’s debut as a front man and it’s a splendid mix of blues and soul from an artist who knows a thing or two about both genres.

Olson tears through this impressive nine-song collection of mostly original compositions with a rock-solid backing quintet that includes Eric Williams (piano/tenor sax/baritone sax), Jamie Waldron (bass), Darryl Porras (guitars), and Robert Selani (drums). The set opens with “Baby Boomers Blues,” a funky account of the 2007 real estate crash (which eventually cost Olson his home), “Sheila,” a joyous old school rock n’ roller, and the hypnotic horn-fueled rocker “Bleed Baby Bleed.”

Olson slows things down a bit with the fine slow blues “I Miss New Orleans,” with a warm vocal that really helps capture the mood and imagery of the Crescent City. “Petie Reed,” a tune about one of Olson’s old girl friends, has a smooth jazzy rhythm, and the title track is a funky rocker. “Johnnie Walker” is a somber tribute to a friend who committed suicide, and this lengthy slow blues offers ample space for Williams and Porras to strut their instrumental stuff, and also features Olson’s best vocal. The disc closes with a fine pair of cover tunes, Little Walter’s uptempo “Up The Line,” and Muddy Waters’ “Can’t Lose What You Never Had,” which is given a spare Delta-flavored setting teaming Porras’ slide guitar with Olson on harp and vocals.

Currently, Olson and the band are collaborating with Beverly “Guitar” Watkins, with Olson serving as her musical director. Hopefully, this won’t keep them out of the studio for too long, because based on the strength of their debut release, there should still a lot of great music ahead for them.

--- Graham Clarke

Michelle MaloneMichelle Malone’s music encompasses the blues, country, Americana, and rock n’ roll. In other words, the music of the American South, which makes sense, since the singer/songwriter/guitarist was born and raised in Atlanta. She’s built a loyal and enthusiastic following since launching her career in the late ’80s through live gigs, appearances on several film and TV soundtracks, and over a dozen albums. Her latest, on her own SBS Records, is Slings & Arrows, arguably her best effort in an already formidable catalog of recordings.

Bill Mitchell covered this album in great detail in the February issue, so I can really only reiterate his positive remarks. Malone is a supremely talented guitarist and her versatility is shown to great effect on this ten-song set. Several tracks, like “Just Getting Started, “Fox and The Hound,” and the Second Line-ish “Love Yourself,” showcase her slide guitar skills and she also can do that churning John Lee Hooker-like boogie guitar with the best of them. She also plays mandolin and harmonica on several tracks.

Malone wrote, or co-wrote nine of the ten songs on Slings & Arrows, and while she can definitely rock the house on “Just Getting Started” and “Matador,” she’s also capable of carrying more subdued fare. “The Flame” really stands out, and the midtempo “Sugar On My Tongue” gives her an opportunity to show her soulful side on the vocal side. Tracks like “Beast’s Boogie” and “Fox and The Hound” will certainly please blues fans. The album’s lone cover is a good choice, a nicely understated version of Otis Redding’s “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long,” on which Malone duets with Shawn Mullins.

As Mr. Mitchell indicated, this album was a pleasant surprise. Though I’d never heard Michelle Malone’s previous work, Slings & Arrows has encouraged me to dig a little deeper into her catalog.

--- Graham Clarke

George ShovlinHaving pursued a distinguished career as a teacher whilst also establishing a reputation as the award winning "Godfather of North East (of England) Blues," George Shovlin in his retirement is proving that he is a major UK talent following a successful national tour and this ground breaking album of original blues songs, Nothing To Lose.

The jaunty opener, “Don’t You Just Love The Blues,” with its barrelhouse piano groove, appropriately traces George Shovlin and the Radars love of the blues and main influences. “Got Home This Morning” has a haunting infectious bass riff overlaid by Shovlin’s seriously dark, gravelly vocals. By contrast, “Cruisin’ Come Sundown” is optimistic and upbeat with superb dueling between George Lamb on guitar and Paul Wilson’s keys.

The first real indication that this a very special album comes with the emotional tribute to Billy Gibbons, “William Frederick (A Homage)” followed by “I Don’t Mind,” the track which propels Nothing To Lose into the magnum opus category. The latter together with “Lord Hear My Prayer” are reminiscent of Bowie’s and Cohen’s final works in terms of emotional intensity, anguish and lament as Shovlin proclaims in a voice at breaking point, ‘Whatever may be Lord, I Don’t Mind.” The equally atmospheric ‘prayer’ builds up to a crescendo courtesy of Jim Bullock’s brilliant harp interludes and Kev Scott’s precise drumming. However, the sadness is balanced by joy on “Just Wanna Have A Good Time” with Mick Cantwell excelling on saxophone.

Scott’s funky rhythm and Stu Burlison’s pulsating bass are the driving force behind “She’s So Fine” with Lamb delivering classy guitar solos. The swirling Hammond organ and harmonica on the closing track, “You Know Who’s Gonna Win,” make this a fitting finale to a highly memorable CD.

Not only did the youthful, effervescent George have nothing to lose when he entered the recording studio with his talented musicians, he has gained even further respect for his lifetime achievements including induction into the American Heritage Blues Hall Of Fame.

--- Dave Scott

Jed PottsThis sensational eponymous debut album from the Edinburgh-based trio Jed Potts and the Hillman Hunters comprises 1950s and early '60s American blues classics and original material confirming this young band’s growing reputation in Scotland and beyond. On a recent trip to the USA, Jed discovered the ‘Mississippi Blues Child’ Mr Sipp and harpist Brandon Santini, persuading them to to perform at the Edinburgh Jazz and Blues Festival. Jed’s extensive knowledge of the genre is reflected in the band’s choice of songs by lesser known blues and early rock masters such as Robert Petway and Rudy Greene.

“Days Of Old” written by BB King and Jules Taub starts the proceedings with an upbeat, nostalgic celebration of the blues. This is followed by the instrumental, “Sen-Sa-Shun,” co- written by that other blues royalty, Freddie, featuring superb finger blurring fretwork from Potts. King’s “See See Baby” epitomizes the authentic, down home blues feel of this live in the studio recording without instrumental overdubs or multiple takes. Glover and McCoy’s “Uh Uh Baby” has a more bluesy feel than the Little Willie John version with its strong vocal delivery and staccato guitar interludes.

The first of three self-penned compositions, “Four Leaf Clover,” shows that this is no-covers band as the slow blues reaches a series of crescendos as impressive as any other track on the CD. The jazz-infused instrumental “Puttin’ It Aboot” showcases the talents of all three musicians, drummer Jonny Christie maintaining the fast pace with metronomic timing whilst exchanging inventive fills with the equally dexterous bassist Charlie Wild. “Draughts” is the third original, an instrumental with its delicate touches of light and shade, subtle changes of pace and intricate guitar interludes adding to its appeal.

Elvis Presley popularized ‘Trying To Get To You’ and Potts gives the song a more country and western flavor with a neat shuffle by using his full vocal range and adapting his guitar style. Petway’s “Fishin’ After Me” is an inspirational choice given that he is best known for the great “Catfish Blues,” one of the most prolific and influential songs in blues history. The power trio format comes into its own as it gives Potts the time and space to play, reminiscent of Alvin Lee in his latter years with a three-piece. Its success depends on empathy between all three musicians and a strong, inventive rhythm section as evident here.

Johnny ‘Guitar’ Watson’s “Gangster Of Love” is a tribute to the Texas blues showman as it retains the integrity of the original version. From Greene’s Jump Jive And Swing album, “Juicy Fruit” is given the Little Richard rock and 'n' roll treatment and is the ultimate show stopper with its lyrics, ‘Got a $50 flat top, clothes made of pure cashmere, got a car so long I got to park it in the air.’ Oh yeah!

The pace drops with Nappy Brown’s “Down In The Alley” before the finale, fittingly another Freddie King instrumental, “Side Tracked.” It is a brave, confident and, above all, accomplished guitarist who emulates such an iconic and unique style and technique, but Potts nails it brilliantly.

Blues titans Jed Potts and the Hillman Hunters are as timeless as the classic British car, but with the performance, power and refinement of a Formula One racer.

--- Dave Scott


 

 

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