Its been six years since Son Seals released a studio recording. A lot has changed for him since then. Having survived being shot in the jaw and losing a leg to diabetes during that span, Son has also changed record labels, moving from longtime home Alligator Records to the Telarc label. His first release from Telarc, Lettin Go, provides even more changes. The liner notes state that this release marks the first occasion that Son has actually had the freedom to record the material he wants to record. Some things about this release are different from his Alligator releases, and that is a good thing. Among them are Sons excursion into rock & roll ("Rock and Rollin Tonight" and "Osceola Rock" (a retake on "Jailhouse Rock"), which is largely successful. He also does a version of "Jelly, Jelly," which is effective as well, even though it is a little lengthy. The songwriting is particularly good on this release. Sons own songs are strong enough, the autobiographical "I Got Some of My Money" and "Blues Holy Ghost," and the Magic Sam influenced "Love Had A Breakdown" being three high points. Even Sons remake of "Funky Bitch," with Trey Anastasio from the band Phish guesting on guitar is solid enough (though it doesnt come close to the intensity of the original on Sons indispensable Live and Burning album). Thankfully, this is the only time the dreaded "guest musician" syndrome rears its head on this release. So whats wrong with this disc? Too many of the songs have that same solo that Son has been playing for the last several years that have made his most recent discs, at times, too repetitive. At least some of the different styles do force him into slightly different directions this time and when he does hit a different groove, the results are much better. Sons vocals are as strong as ever and the production by Jimmy Vivino is rock solid. All in all, this is a pretty good release that is better than his last couple of Alligator albums, but still falls short of his earlier work. Its good to hear Son again. Lets hope that his health problems are a thing of the past and that he doesnt go six years between CDs again.
--- Graham Clarke
To push the boundaries of the blues into regions of soul, space, roots, rock, country & western, acid jazz and R&B ... this is what Alvin Youngblood Hart set out to do on his latest CD, Start with the Soul (Hannibal/Rykodisc). Never has a publicity blurb been so accurate: this is music that goes off everywhere! No delicate acoustic fingerpicking here. Hart has chosen to concentrate on his electric guitars, and man does he play with abandon! From the groovy jazz instrumental "Porch Monkeys' Theme" to the psychedelic/space rock of "Electric Eel," from the straight-ahead country song "Cowboy Boots" to a cover of the R&B hit "Treat Her Like a Lady," this CD covers a lot of ground. Yes, Alvin Youngblood Hart is one of the brightest new talents in blues today, but he's also a staunch individualist who prefers to leave categories to others. If you want to see him as a blues artist, fine, but that won't stop him from playing what he wants to play ... and do it brilliantly, too. All in all, this is a great album, comparable in a way to those old Cream and Santana albums. You never know where Hart is going next, but there is such a feeling of exhilaration brought from the sheer joy of exploring uncharted territories that you can't stop playing it. Hart really does start with the soul. Who knows where he'll end up?
For two consecutive years, The James Solberg Band won the Handy award for Best Blues Band in the States, backing Luther Allison as he blazed a trail to the summits before losing his battle to cancer. If you still think the great Luther could have achieved the same results with just any band, go and get your hands on James Solberg's latest (due around May 5th), The Hand You're Dealt (Ruf Records). Don't be impressed by the cover art (a tarot hand with Death on top). This is music that is every bit as energetic and powerful and gripping as Allison's last studio albums. Critics already praised Solberg's guitar mastery and songwriting during his stay with Allison, so it's no surprise to find them in good measure on this CD. It is as a singer that Solberg impresses me on this album. Though he doesn't have the range nor the power of his former companion, he has a knack for finding just the perfect material for his voice --- part gruff, part twangy, never trying to reach for the impossible note. Heck, he covers a gospel tune ("I'm Going Home") and a Bobby Blue Bland hit ("Members Only") and passes both tests with flying colors. As a bonus of sorts, the listener is treated to a duet with Luther Allison, "Still Called the Blues," recorded in 1994; it is a moving tribute from a man to his close friend, and a special gift to all those who loved Allison.
If there is one thing Bryan Lee has learned from his 17-year-plus stay on New Orleans' Bourbon Street, it is that to please the crowds you've got to give them what they want. This is why his two previous CDs, both recorded live, didn't do him justice. They contained way too many over-played standards. Which is also why is latest, Crawfish Lady (Justin Time), his first studio recording in five years, is so rewarding. Except for the first song, more a tribute to Freddie King than a cover ("Palace of the King"), you get nothing but nice originals, lots of enthusiasm, and consistently good musicianship (with Marc Adams on organ, George Rossy on piano and Jody Golick on tenor sax standing out). B.B. King's Memphis sound is at the core of Lee's playing, but his stay in New Orleans has also given him a good command of Louisiana styles, from New Orleans R&B (like the title song) to mambo-cajun dance music ("Something's Wrong"). And though he doesn't look at all like James Brown, Bryan Lee sure can get funky. For proof, listen to "Noize with the Boyz." Good clean fun.
The Nelsen Adelard Band is a West Coast-based outfit with a swing/jump blues approach that at times sounds like Rod Piazza's band, the Mighty Flyers, with leader Adelard recalling Sugar Ray Norcia on vocals. Adelard also plays harp, guitar and keyboards. Producer Michael Monarch (ex-guitarist for Steppenwolf) lends a hand with some pretty good slide work on "Tell Me Honey, Why'd Ya Do Me Wrong?", but he has also inexplicably chosen to wrap everything with some slightly annoying echo effect. The strongest cut on the band's first CD, Blues Got a Hold on Me (J-Bird Records), is probably the groovy riff-based "Give It One More Try," with sax player Rick Arbuckle in a starring role. Other fine moments include the R&B-flavored "Give It One More Try," the simple-but-oh-so-effective title track, and a cover of the jazz standard "Ain't Misbehaving," where Adelard shows why the tiny harmonica is also known as the Mississippi saxophone. All in all, a good record that nestles nicely in your ear.
Seems like Bob Walsh has been on the Montreal blues scene forever. Actually, it took him close to 30 years of touring and playing small gigs before he could record his first (self-titled) album in 1996. His situation hasn't changed much since, although parts of Europe are starting to take note. In 1999, maybe in order to take a break from all the small bars where he has played countless times, he came up with a novel idea: a show that would feature his core band (Guy Belanger on harp and Jean Cyr on standup bass) backed by a classical string quartet. The concept worked surprisingly well. More shows were added, the "band" went on tour, and now there is Bob Walsh et Le Quatuor à cordes Allard, the live album that documents the whole thing. The blues content is of course smaller than on Walsh's other CDs, and the sound quality is not always perfect. But there are moments of pure emotion and beauty that will leave you stunned. (For more info, contact the distributor, Bros, at www.bros.ca)
By cataloguing Jeff Healey (one of the guests on the Jimmy Rogers All-Stars' Blues Blues Blues CD of a year ago) as a blues artist, we are doing him a disservice. Let's take his latest CD, Get Me Some (Forte Records / Universal), to illustrate our point. (Please note that technically, the album is credited to The Jeff Healey Band). The first single on the album, "I Tried," is a ballad that has nothing to do with blues, penned by the ubiquitous Diane Warren, with easy rhymes and lots of strings. It may have nothing to do with blues, but it's perfect for radio. We may see Healey as having sold out, but in fact he himself has never said he was a blues player. So what does that make his CD? An OK guitar-oriented, pop-rock album that might disappoint or appeal to blues lovers, depending on their expectations.
--- Benoît Brière
Great harmonica players are no rarity in the blues, however exceptional players such as Charlie Musselwhite certainly are. The Best of The Vanguard Years (Vanguard) is an introspective look at one of the truly exceptional harp players in the business during his early recording career. Culled from his first three albums on the Vanguard label, this collection is sure to please not only fans of Charlie's music but also harp lovers the world over. Dating back to 1967 these recordings have been digitally transferred from the analog masters and sound as if they could have been recorded recently. What you'll find on this sensational CD is Musselwhite melding his Memphis style with the sound of Chicago circa the mid-1960's, which has often been dismissed as an off period of creativity for Chicago blues. Some of the numbers here have become staples of Musselwhite's repertoire and are heard here in their infancy. The first five numbers are from his debut recording in 1967, Stand Back! Here Comes Charlie Musselwhite's South Side Band, and opens the disc with "Chicken Shack," an all out rocking jam that boogies with a rawness that is hard to find in today's recordings. "Help Me," an often covered Sonny Boy Williamson number, is subject to some growling vocals and wicked harp riffs. "Christo Redemptor," written by Duke Pearson and made famous by jazz legend Donald Byrd, is given a very moody and completely authentic treatment. A very interesting piece of music named "Cha Cha The Blues" has a Latin crossover spin to it that will come to full fruition some 32 years later on Charlie's landmark Continental Drifter album. Tracks 6-8 were taken from 1968's Stone Blues, with the instrumental "Juke" being the standout number. Tracks 9-14 are from Tennessee Woman, released in 1969. Besides the album's title number, which is included in this collection, Junior Wells' "Little By Little" is covered with an energy and zest that 30 years later sounds as fresh as it did then. Two Musselwhite originals, "I'm A Stranger" and "Blue Feeling Today," deal with the loneliness one can feel being alone far from home in a strange town, and show his early songwriting skills being honed to perfection. The latter number has another young harmonica virtuoso lending his skills on chromatic harp, namely Mr. Rod Piazza, who would make a substantial impact of his own upon the California blues scene. The final six numbers on this CD are a collector's delight. The first is "Rockin My Boogie," from the historic Chicago The Blues Today! recordings (reviewed in Blues Bytes, Feb.2000) and features an all-star band. The next two "O Yea" and "So Many Roads, So Many Trains," are actually from a John Hammond release in 1965, with Musselwhite and Mike Bloomfield on piano sitting in with Hammond and a young Canadian band who would go on to achieve fame as The Band. Both cuts are quite good. The final three pieces are previously unreleased and hold a few surprises, which I'll let the listeners discover for themselves. So for those critics out there who say the blues scene in Chicago was stagnant and non-progressive in the 1960's, give this album a listen and see if your opinion changes any. As a compiled reissue this one is hard to beat, and Musselwhite fans (or harp fans for that matter) who aren't familiar with or can't find his early work, this is a must for your collection.
Harp lovers rejoice! The grand master of the Mississippi saxophone has a new release! Fire Down Under The Hill (Telarc) is the name of the long awaited new release from one of the blues elder statesmen, Mr. James Cotton. At 71 years of age and showing no signs of slowing down, Cotton offers us 10 numbers on this exquisite release, three original instrumentals along with an original piece by guest vocalist Darrell Nulisch. The remaining cuts are covers written by a couple of former band mates, namely Muddy Waters, Willie Dixon and Jimmy Rogers, along with numbers by Lowell Fulson and Etta James. There isnt a bad tune in the bunch. "Cotton Jump Boogie," a Cotton original, leads off with James blowing up a storm like only he can, subsequently setting the mood for the rest of the album. "Thats Alright" follows with Darrell Nulisch supplying the vocals to this often covered standard, breathing new life into it as well as into Nulischs own "Boot Knockin Boogie." After recent throat surgeries, James vocals are not what they once were. But that does not stop him from delivering a bang-up version of "Young Fashioned Ways," which is a message to anyone out there who feels like ole father time is creeping up on them. The prize of this collection is the title track "Fire Down Under The Hill." Clocking in at 10+ minutes, this instrumental workout lets Cottons Mississippi Delta roots shine through, while at the same time showcasing his regular road band of Rico McFarland on guitar and David Maxwell on piano. The harp solo on this number will blow you away (no pun intended!). Of special note is the fact that throughout this CD there is not a drummer to be found anywhere. Its not that noticeable at first, not until maybe the second or third time you listen to this splendid album, and even then the lack of a drummer is not missed. Despite the toll that time has taken on his vocal pipes, James Cotton is very much alive and blowing like hes still in his 20s. The effort and dedication that he put into this recording shines through with every note played and sung. The blues dont get any more real than this album from one of the truly great masters of the modern blues era. James Cotton proves once again that age in the business of the blues is nothing more than a number.
Anyone hungry for some delicious blues? If so, then stop into Cafe R&B for a jumbo serving of the house specialty, Black and White (Self release). From appetizers to dessert, your hunger will be more than satisfied by these five gourmet yet untrendy cooks from Los Angeles. Six of the 11 items on the menu are chefs originals with the other five being tasty staples whipped up in other kitchens. The original dishes are served fresh with just the right amount of spice to awaken your taste buds. Some of the tastier original creations are "Tall Grass," which youll find at the top of the menu bursting with hard driving flavor. "Steppin" and "Shine" will only whet your appetite further with funky soulful rhythms accented by stunning riffs from Byl Carruthers, producer / guitarist / writer and head chef of the very tight five piece kitchen staff. The covers on this CD are classics given superior treatments, with some slight favoritism leaning toward Howlin Wolf ("Sitting On Top Of The World" and "Smokestack Lightning"). Two other standards, "Black Cat Blues" and "Take Your Hand Out Of My Pocket," give this CD a pleasant balance between originals and covers that work together forming one singular sound that is Cafe R&Bs own. Cafe R&B is one of the most original sounding blues bands to grace this writers ears in the last few years. Frontwoman and vocalist Roach (really her name) delivers a mixture of high voltage funk flavored blues delivered with a traditional Chicago grit à la Etta James or Koko Taylor. This lady lets you know first and foremost that the specialty of the house is blues and nothing but the blues. Ken Dooly on bass and Steve Klong on drums, along with Harry Cohen on keys, round out the band. This is an exciting debut release from a powerhouse of a band that should be heard and heard often. Black and White should curb the hunger for those ravenous blues fans that would like a taste of something fresh and different than fast food blues delivered through a drive through window. Digest and enjoy!
--- Steve Hinrichsen
Guy Davis is an artist who continues to improve, and Butt Naked Free (Red House) is the most diverse album of the four he's recorded in his career. This is one of those albums that grows on you each time you hear it. While Davis hasn't gotten the acclaim of some of the other new breed traditional artists like Keb' Mo', Corey Harris or Alvin Youngblood Hart, he's every bit as strong an artist as those other cats. Butt Naked Free is bolstered by the presence of The Band drummer Levon Helm, who also contributes a few mandolin solos to the album. Davis' gravelly vocals are nicely contrasted by his nimble guitar picking. most notably on the excellent "Waiting On The Cards To Fall." My favorite number is the least bluesy number here, the catchy "Let Me Stay A While," with excellent accordion and mandolin from T-Bone Wolke ... this cut reminds of something that Leo Kottke or John Prine might have done many years ago. For an older blues sound, Davis gives us the brooding, traditional sounding "Sometimes I Wish." For those of you who always enjoy a good hokum blues, then don't miss the bawdy "High Flying Rocket," contains some nice fingerpickin' guitar work from Davis. You'll be certain that "Meet Me Where The River Turns" was written 70 years ago in the deep South; instead, Davis penned this one while driving through British Columbia. As on several other cuts, Mark Murphy nicely compliments Davis' guitar work with tasteful upright bass. I don't have room to tell you about all of the other great tunes on this disc ... just go out and get it and listen to it for yourself.
Like a fine wine, blues legend B.B. King continues to improve with age. His latest CD, Makin' Love Is Good For You (MCA), is pure B.B. King ... no special guests trying to hog the spotlight, no tributes to other artists ... just straight blues as only B.B. can deliver them. The elder statesman of the blues starts the album with a little bit of anger on the uptempo "I Got To Leave This Woman." King's vocals are a little gruffer than usual as he sings "...I got to leave this woman, I ain't got nowhere else to go ... you see she owns everything, including the carpet on the floor..." The version of Barbara George's "I Know" begins with a nice, gospel piano, leading into a nice horn-driven, soulful tune. Few artists in the history of the blues were as expressive as B.B. can be on a good, slow blues, best represented on this disc by the original "Peace of Mind," featuring a nice guitar intro by King and wonderful piano accompaniment by James Toney. Another highlight is the soulful Buddy Johnson ballad "Since I Fell For You." B.B. shows that he hasn't lost any of his guitar chops over the years with some nice licks on the mid-tempo shuffle "You're On Top." It's hard for me to pick a favorite cut on this album, but "You're On Top" might be it ... it's classic B.B. King. Actually, I could say that about the whole CD. It's his best in years.
Blues Basics (Tommy Tiger) is a pleasant acoustic album from the Rhode Island group Ursula George. Their name is taken from the two main principals, guitarist Lori Urso and harmonica player George Reithoffer. Also appearing on the album is the fine slide player Marc Barnicle, whose presence boosts the quality of this album up an extra notch. Urso and Reithoffer alternate vocals on the disc, and it's the cuts featuring Urso's strong voice that shine brightest. There are no original numbers here, but instead a collection of traditional blues standards. Barnicle's excellent guitar solo highlights "Make Me A Pallet On Your Floor," then he follows with equally strong instrumental work on Sonny Boy Williamson's "Help Me." Urso's best singing is heard on the Sippie Wallace classic "Women Be Wise."
Blues Is My Wailin' Wall (Blue Thumb) from Mighty Mo Rodgers was originally released last fall, and there seemed to be a pretty good buzz about the disc. But I only recently received a copy, and was initially real skeptical about it's contents. The fact that Rodgers is based out of Hollywood made me suspect that he was some kind of "Tinsel Town" creation of an old blues guy. But I was pleasantly surprised with the contents of this CD. Rodgers has a raw, primal vocal style, and most of the music is underlined by a core rhythmic beat. He reminds me somewhat of the late Ted Hawkins, the legend of Venice Beach. Blues Is My Wailin' Wall is not just straight 12-bar blues. "Took Away The Drum" is a fascinating original number, on which Rodgers' voice is backed by marimba and African drums. "Heaven's Got The Blues" is a snaky, slow blues with earthier vocals. Rodgers is also a strong songwriter, witness the lyrics on "The Kennedy Song" --- "...he was the victim of the ultimate drive-by..." For a nice change of pace, Rodgers recaptures a classic 60s soul sound on the great "(Bring Back) Sweet Soul Music," with excellent vocals and some nice sax breaks. The album closes with "Shame!," a live band cut which is the least interesting number on the CD ... it's marred by too many synthetic effects ... perhaps that touch of Hollywood finally creeping in. Still, Blues Is My Wailin' Wall is a strong debut disc from Rodgers, and I look forward to seeing him hit the blues club circuit soon.
I've always had mixed feelings about the music of Texas-based Omar and the Howlers. When these guys swing and jump or do Wolf-style Chicago blues, they're a hot band and Omar's raw, raspy vocals sound just right to my ears. But when they go into their more Credence Clearwater-sound rock stuff, Omar's voice has that "fingernails on a blackboard" kind of sound for me. Their new live CD, Live At The Opera House (Phoenix Gems), covers both ends of the pleasure / annoyance spectrum. "Don't You Know" and "Big Legs" are both great cuts, catchy blues shuffles done in the style of the great Howlin' Wolf, while "Lee Anne" is a strong slow blues with good guitar work from Omar. On the other hand, "Mississippi Hoo Doo Man" and "Hard Times In The Land Of Plenty" had me pushing the fast forward button to quickly get to the next cut. Sound quality on the CD is good, and the band is solid throughout the album. Your need for this disc will depend on your own tastes, as I fully realize that many other listeners like Omar and the Howlers better than I do.
Bottled Up Blues (Kanawha) is the second independent release from L.A.-based Rich Harper Blues Band. There are some decent songs here, especially when the band gets down to the basic blues. Harper plays nice acoustic slide guitar on "Wrong Man," and "Bound To Pay" is a nice slow blues. But the sound is frequently a little thin from this rockin' blues trio, and the songs generally seem to lack a lot of feeling and emotion. That's not to say there's no chance for improvement, as the occasional strong numbers show that this band has some potential.
For a Southern California independent with more punch, check out Back Home Someday (With These Hands) from guitarist Jeff Taylor. The opening cut, "King Of Your World," explodes from the CD player with stinging blues guitar solos and a powerful horn section. In addition to the horns and guitar, Ron Fransen's keyboard work helps tie this tight band's sound together, especially on the catchy shuffle "Things I Used To Do." Every instrument blends nicely with Taylor's vocals on the slow blues "Still Got A Long Way To Go," with Fransen's gospel-style piano adding an extra special touch. Fransen again shines with nice boogie woogie piano on the fast moving "Shreveport Station." John "Juke" Logan makes a guest appearance, playing harp on the country blues of "Two Wrongs Don't Make A Right." Another plus in Taylor's favor is that all ten songs are original compositions, making him an artist ready to move on to bigger and better things in the blues world. Check Taylor's web site for more info.
--- Bill Mitchell
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