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April 1998

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The Johnny Nocturne BandSwing music is the hottest rage for the young, hip crowd. But some cats were playing this stuff long before it became cool. One such individual is John Firmin, tenor sax player and bandleader for The Johnny Nocturne Band. Wild & Cool is the band's third CD for Bullseye Blues & Jazz, and I think it's their best yet. This tight nine-piece ensemble swings with the best of them, and singer Brenda Boykin sounds like a reincarnated Big Maybelle. In fact, they do a song originally recorded by Maybelle, "New Kind of Mambo." In addition to a whole bunch of old songs, the band also covers two very good Lyle Lovett tunes, "A Pound of Blues" and "After The Lights Go Down Low." Wild & Cool is just that!

Johnny Winter fans will want to grab a piece of live action with his newest album, Live In NYC '97 (Pointblank). Recorded last year at the Bottom Line, the disc includes many songs recorded on some of Winter's recent Pointblank albums, such as "She Likes To Boogie Real Low" and "Johnny Guitar." Winter also pays tribute to some of his influences, with tunes from Freddy King, Elmore James and Muddy Waters.

Robert Lockwood Jr.One of the last of the authentic Mississippi bluesmen still around is Robert Lockwood Jr., now well into his 80s. But over the years Lockwood became more than just a country blues guitarist, developing a more sophisticated style and influencing artists like B.B. King. In fact, B.B. makes a guest appearance on Robert's latest album, I Got To Find Me A Woman (Verve). On the highlight of the disc, the two artists just sit down together and pick out an instrumental entitled "Bob and B.," while King contributes backing guitar on the title cut. Another special duet occurs between Lockwood and Joe Louis Walker on "Feel Like Blowing My Horn." There's also a nice version of one of Lockwood's standard numbers, "Little Boy Blue," on which he plays slide. The album ends in fine fashion with the spirited "For You My Love." Let's hope that Robert Jr. keeps going for another 20 years or so.

Mike Morgan and the CrawlLee McBee rejoined Mike Morgan and the Crawl last year after a brief absence, and now this band is sounding hotter than ever. McBee's raspy vocals and crisp harmonica playing contrast nicely to Morgan's stinging Texas guitar work. The band covers a lot of territory on The Road (Black Top), from a more soulful sound on "No More Clouds" to the jazzy instrumental "Alexandria, Va." McBee's vocals highlight the former, while the latter showcases Morgan's tasty guitar. "Born To Boogie" is a hot, uptempo boogie blues.

New York blues guitarist Bill Perry's new CD, Greycourt Lightning (Pointblank) was a pleasant surprise when I first listened to it. I don't remember his previous disc as being anything special, but based on the strength of this new one, perhaps I need to pull it out and give it another listen. Most interesting here is his interpretation of several oldies. Perry turns "Blue Suede Shoes" into a hard Chicago blues, while he injects a heavy dose of funk into Robert Johnson's "Come On In My Kitchen." I also like his slide work on the solo acoustic original "Trust In Me," which also shows Perry to be an emotional singer.

Former Howlin' Wolf guitarist Hubert Sumlin has never been noted for his singing, but he sounds mighty fine to me on his brand new disc Wake Up Call (Blues Planet Records). Sumlin's vocals sound best on his rendition of "Gonna Move," while he shows off his well-known guitar prowess on the instrumental "Let Your Fingers Do The Talkin'." Sumlin also can get funky, as we hear on "Hubert Runs The Hoodoo Down." Overall, this is a delightful album, and certainly worth searching out.

The liner notes to For Real (AudioQuest Music) calls Joe Beard an almost-hidden blues treasure, and that's a good description of this very good singer and guitarist from Rochester, N.Y. Backed here by a band led by blues stars Duke Robillard and Ronnie Earl, Beard shows us a voice and style somewhat reminiscent of Smokey Wilson, although not quite as raw. Most of the tunes on For Real are originals, with my favorites being the nice, slow blues "It's Up To You" and the talking blues of  "Elem," the latter featuring good piano work from Bruce Katz.

Take Your Best Shot (Bullseye Blues & Jazz), from Smokin' Joe Kubek featuring B'nois King, is a bit disappointing compared to this band's previous albums. Most of the cuts are just too hard and rocked out, and contain way too many guitar effects. I really didn't enjoy anything until the ninth of 10 cuts, the uptempo "So Blind," when B'nois King's vocals were finally allowed to stand out. The guitar work is crisper on this tune, and not overpowering the vocals. Otherwise, this CD just isn't to my tastes.

Your personal likes and dislikes will probably also determine whether you want to pick up the new live album, Live & Uppity (Alligator), from Saffire - The Uppity Blues Women. The Uppities perform 16 tunes, drawn mostly from their four previous Alligator studio albums. The most stirring number is "1-800-799-7233," which happens to be the toll-free number for the National Domestic Violence Hot Line.

Chris HolzhausFrom the beer halls of South Texas comes guitarist Chris Holzhaus, former sideman for Delbert McClinton, with the excellent Welcome To Bluzhill, Texas (Bluzhill Worldwide). You'll have to look pretty darned hard to find a better independent release out right now; this is one of those albums which you like better the more you listen to it. Holzhaus reminds me both vocally and stylistically of John Mooney, but with a jazzier tinge. He mixes funky Louisiana  tunes, like the original "Going Down To New Orleans" and a slow swampy version of "One Night," with straight blues such as Willie Dixon's "I'm Ready" and his own "Tribute to Albert." I'm ready to hear more from Chris Holzhaus.

A big band and lots of horns makes California's Rhythmtown-Jive a fun group to hear. Throw in a guest appearance by piano legend Johnnie Johnson, and you've got another tasty independent album, On The Main Stem (Globe Records). "Johnnie's Idea" is a nice, slow blues featuring Johnson's stellar piano work and some nice T-Bone Walker-style guitar. "Jet Stream" is a real hot instrumental.

A Long Way From Home (MCA) features 18 recordings by Brownie McGhee & Sonny Terry originally released on ABC-Bluesway in 1969. Many of the tunes were recorded countless times by the duo. But what separates these recordings is the backing by artists like Earl Hooker and Panama Francis, giving the songs a harder, more urban edge. A good example of this is their original "Night & Day," featuring good piano by Ray Johnson. With Hooker on guitar, they put out a straight Chicago blues on "When I Was Drinkin'." Johnson's electric piano sounds a bit incongruous at times, but otherwise this one's a keeper.

Former guitarist with Canned Heat and John Mayall's Bluesbreakers Walter Trout has his own self-titled thing out on Ruf Records. Trout is a good guitarist and a decent singer, who stands out on the slower blues like "Walkin' In The Rain" and the instrumental "Marie's Mood."

If you're expecting covers of "Bad Bad Leroy Brown" and "Time In A Bottle" from San Diego pianist A.J. Croce, then you're looking for the wrong Croce. A.J. is the late Jim's son, and plays New Orleans-flavored blues piano. His newest CD, Fit to Serve (Ruf Records), shows that Croce has picked up a lot of Dr. John and Randy Newman influence along the way. The best tune here is an original blues rumba titled "Judgement Day." There's also a nice gumbo-flavored cover of "Trouble In Mind."

From L.A. comes an independent release, Don't Think Just Play (Mega Truth Records) by the Rich Harper Blues Band. I actually preferred the more restrained numbers, like "Blue Eyed Blues," featuring Harper on acoustic slide guitar and his relaxed version of "The Thrill Is Gone."

Two old friends from the UK, Gareth Hedges and Lance Bennett, got together for the first time in 20 years to record a fun acoustic album, Candy Man. Hedges plays guitar whiel Bennett fills in on harmonica, covering traditional songs like "Dark Town Strutters Ball," "Nobody Knows You When You're Down & Out," and other blues/jazz numbers from the 20s and 30s.

--- Bill Mitchell

Funk is definitely in the house on the latest effort from Walter "Wolfman" Washington and the Roadmasters, Funk Is In The House (Bullseye Blues & Jazz). As a transplanted New Orleanian, this 12 cut CD reminded me of why I always check to see if he’s playing around town whenever I’m back home. Instrumentally, this mix of slow and uptempo tunes contrast Walter’s raw guitar style with rich, intricate horn arrangements and funk grooves tightly executed by the Roadmasters. But the real highlight of this collection is the Wolfman’s sweet soulful baritone, thus the three instrumentals generally don’t work as well as the other songs. Favorite tunes include the ballad "I Stand Accused," "Mary Ann," a blues with several great grooves, and "The Big Easy", with terrific horn arrangements. Definitely worth checking out by those leaning toward the funky end of the spectrum.

--- Pat Toye

It is not often the case that a Handy Award nominee is barely known outside of her region. But such is the undeserved fate of the Portland-based singer, Sheila Wilcoxson. Not being fortunate enough to live in that fair city, I was unacquainted with her formidable talent until I happened upon her recent release, Backwater Blues (Burnside Records), and bought it on a whim. As whims go, it was first-class. I was drawn in from the first measure and my enthusiasm soared as I was swept along by this acoustic blues torrent. I then sought out her earlier Burnside release, Back to Basics, on which she sang with a group by the name of Back Porch Blues (since disbanded). I was equally impressed. Backwater Blues is no fluke release but a solid representation of a voice that deserves to be
hailed as one of the finest blues voices in current music. What makes her singing so special is its sulky tone quality, its tremendous four-octave range, and its captivating expressiveness and earnestness. Ms. Wilcoxson melds well with the talented ensemble that includes Terry Robb (guitar) and Curtis Salgado (harp), but really soars when she sings a capella numbers such as, "Looky, Looky Yonder/Black Betty" and "Sweet Misery." The style is acoustic and traditional with a touch of gospel, and a hint of jazz (another of her mastered genres). Oh, one more thing--how many blues belters can you name who possess a law degree?

--- Bill Jacobs

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