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April 1997

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Joe Louis Walker's latest, Great Guitars (Verve), follows in the same formula as many other big name blues artists who feel compelled to overload their CDs with guest appearances by "big name" artists. This disk is filled to the brim with stars: Bonnie Raitt, Ike Turner, Otis Rush, Buddy Guy, Steve Cropper, Matt Murphy, Taj Mahal, Robert Junior Lockwood, etc., etc. While I don't think that Great Guitars surpasses Walker's previous albums, all of which have been solid performances, it's still a darn good CD. One of the most entertaining numbers is the swinging "Mile-Hi Club," with solos by Scotty Moore (Elvis' original guitar picker), Little Charlie Baty, Cropper, and Clarence Gatemouth Brown; horn accompaniment is provided by the Johnny Nocturne horns. Both Walker and Raitt play nice slide guitar on the opening cut, "Low Down Dirty Blues." Walker's duet with Taj Mahal is on an original acoustic gospel number, "In God's Hand." This is a nice addition to the catalog of one of our finest contemporary blues artists.

13 CD coverA new name for me, but one that I think we'll more from in the blues world, is 13 featuring Lester Butler. Their new self-titled album on Hightone is excellent, with a real 1950's Chicago sound to the music. The spirit of Howlin' Wolf lives on in this contemporary band from Los Angeles. Butler is not a great singer, but his voice carries the right emotional feel. And he's a better than average harmonica player. Also making a return to the recording business is guitarist Alex Schultz, formerly with Rod Piazza & the Mighty Flyers. 13's version of "Close To You" has a real low fidelity fuzz, like listening to an old 45; that's refreshing in these days of crystal clear CD sound. Schultz gets to star on the original "Way Down South." Mr. Butler also has a real dark side, as heard on the frantic song "I'm Into Homicide"; check out his maniacal laughter which sounds a lot like the best from Screamin' Jay Hawkins.

Smokey Wilson CD coverSmokey Wilson is one of those blues artists who is hard to categorize. The best description that I can give for his music is Mississippi Delta jook joint blues with a heavy dose of uptown Los Angeles swing. Wilson's latest release, The Man From Mars (Bullseye Blues), is another fine collection of eclectic, electric blues. On several songs he sounds just like Howlin' Wolf; in fact, he covers two Wolf originals. Then Wilson turns around and takes the listener on a trip through the universe on the album's title cut, playing some real "out of this world" guitar. The highlight here is the powerful slow "Doctor Blues." This is the best of Wilson's three Bullseye albums.

Rory Block CD coverRounder Records has picked the cream of the crop from one of their most prolific blues artists, Rory Block, selecting 22 of her best country blues numbers from five different albums. Gone Woman Blues: The Country Blues Collection draws most heavily from the 1995 CD When A Woman Gets The Blues, picking 13 of that disk's 14 cuts. Especially nice is her version of Skip James' "Be Ready When He Comes," an a cappella duet with her son Jordan. I also like her original "Gone Woman Blues," released on last year's Tornado CD.

Irma Thomas CD coverIrma Thomas is a New Orleans legend, and it's always nice to have any new recordings. Her new disk, The Story Of My Life (Rounder), is a great collection of 11 blues and ballads by Ms. Thomas. To provide a fresher sound, producer Scott Billington enlisted the services of veteran soul composers Dan Penn and Carson Whitsett, who contributed three new songs. Added to the mix are some of New Orleans finest session musicians, including bassist George Porter, Stax Records guitarist Michael Toles, and a fantastic version of Aretha's "Dr. Feelgood." Needless to say, this one's a keeper!

Monster Mike Welch CD coverMy graduation from high school was celebrated with the purchase of a new baseball glove. Monster Mike Welch marked his commencement with the release of his second CD for Tone-Cool Records, Axe To Grind. At the age of 17, this kid's moving up the blues ladder real fast. Offstage he's still got a "Jerry Mathers gee whiz" look, but onstage Welch is all business. Since his first album one year ago, Welch's voice has matured into kind of a Stevie Ray Vaughan growl. At the same time, he's developed a deftness of touch in his guitar playing. Check out the slow blues tunes "My Emptiness" and "Axe To Grind" for some tasty guitar work. "Time Stands Still" is another good one.

Southern Style (Watermelon Records) is the latest by Texas-based Omar & the Howlers, a solid blues trio most noted for the raspy vocals of leader Kent "Omar" Dykes. I haven't liked all of the previous releases by this group, but this one's good. One of the better cuts is Omar's version of the Kinsey Report's slow blues "Full Moon On Main Street." The other topnotch song is also a slow one, "Angel Blues," on which Omar sings like Howlin' Wolf and plays guitar like B.B. King.

Discovering The Blues (Avenue Jazz) captures a young Robben Ford in two 1972 live performances. Ford was already well known for his exemplary guitar work, and his playing here on "Sweet Sixteen" and "Blue & Lonesome" is very good. However, I have several complaints about these recordings. While sound quality is good, the electric piano is usually up too high in the mix. Keep in mind though that I don't care for the sound of an electric piano; I guess I heard too many bad hotel lounge bands in the 70s. Second, the songs are all too long, as the solos get repetitive after awhile. Still, this disk is a good look at the evolving style of Mr. Ford.

If John Mayall is considered the "father of the British blues movement," then Long John Baldry should be the grandfather. His blues career began in the 1950s, and his groups backed artists like Big Bill Broonzy, Memphis Slim, and others on their early European tours. Rod Stewart, Elton John and Mick Jagger all were a part of Baldry's band early in their careers. Now a resident of Vancouver, Long John is still active in the Canadian music scene. His latest, Right To Sing The Blues (Stony Plain), is a real mixed bag of different styles. It works best on the jump blues numbers like "They Raided The Joint" and "I'm Shakin'," as Baldry still has that unmistakable "boogie man" voice. Less successful are his attempts at doing country music; you should skip past those cuts. The CD is worth it though just for the 23 minute interview at the end of the disk.

Artie "Blues Boy" White's latest album, Home Tonight (Waldoxy) follows the same formula as his many previous releases: good quality soulful blues. White is a strong singer in the style of a younger Bobby Bland. The best number is the slow, gospel-influenced song "One Step From The Blues."

Robert Bilbo Walker CD cover Robert "Bilbo" Walker has long been a mystery man around the Mississippi Delta, dropping in occasionally from his current home in Bakersfield, California to play a house party or grocery store gig. He's sometimes known as Chuck Berry Jr., but that doesn't begin to cover the various influences heard in Walker's music. This is great raw, rhythmic blues, with equal parts of Sam Cooke, B.B. King, Magic Sam and Muddy Waters thrown in for good measure. My favorite cut on Promised Land (Rooster Blues) is Walker's version of "Got My Mojo Working," with a long instrumental lead-in. There's even a bit of country music here, with a medley of "The Wild Side Of Life" and "It Wasn't God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels." Too cool!

--- Bill Mitchell

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