Blues Bytes

May 2001

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Order these featured CDs today:

Bennie Smith

Iceman Robinson

Ollie Watkins

Chris Beard

Matt Murphy

Otis Taylor

Fred Sanders

Train Don't Leave Me

Harmonica Shah

John Hammond

Debbie Davies

Robert Cray


What's New

Bennie Smith - Shook UpThere are few things that can brighten my day like opening my post office box and finding inside a package of CDs from Fedora Records. Regardless of the artists included in the box, I know that it's going to contain high quality, traditional blues from obscure but deserving blues artists from around the country. This latest batch, with CDs from Bennie Smith, Iceman Robinson and Ollie Watkins is no exception. You say you never heard of any of these artists? Don't worry about that, because it's all tough, raw blues that will please every serious fan. The first disc, Shook Up, comes from St. Louis session veteran Bennie Smith. I really like this CD. Smith has a genuine, affecting style, both vocally and on guitar. He proves his skill in the latter area on the jumpin' instrumental "Buddah-Ba," as he works in a lot of riffs from other songs. This number alone makes Smith the newest entrant on my list of guitar heroes. But then he completely blows my mind on an extended version of Ray Charles' "Drown In My Own Tears," beginning with a few chords from the National Anthem (kind of like Hendrix jammin' with Charles!) before launching into an intense slow blues. There's also a great sax solo from Harry Simon. "Fancy" is another good guitar instrumental; this tune has kind of a "sophisticated rawness," if you understand what I mean. In looking ahead at the song list, I noticed that Smith does a cover of Gatemouth Brown's classic "Okie Dokie Stomp." This is one of my all-time favorite blues guitar workouts, and Smith doesn't disappoint. It's very different from the original, done as more of a shuffle with a hypnotic rhythmic drum beat, with Smith's guitar playing being more staccato. Shook Up is now on my Top Ten list for the year, and I don't foresee it losing that position in the next seven months.

The second new Fedora release comes from Chicago guitarist Iceman Robinson. On I've Never Been Loved, we see an artist who has honed his craft in many nights in rough and tumble blues clubs around the Windy City. This is back alley blues in the same style of Magic Slim, Hound Dog Taylor and Lil' Ed. The uptempo blues shuffle "Chicago Lakefront" is so true to the Chicago style that I could feel the lake wind-chill all the way down here in Arizona. Robinson's guitar sounds best when he's playing it with his slide, as on the Elmore James-inspired instrumental "Robinson's Rock." "Baby How Long" is similar to Wolf's version of the same song, but Robinson's voice is cleaner than Wolf's. The only other covers on I've Never Been Loved are a pair of Hound Dog Taylor numbers, "My Baby's Comin' Home" and "Sadie," both which again show off Robinson's mastery with the slide. Listening to this CD might inspire me to hop the next flight to Chicago for the kind of blues that you just can't get anywhere else in the world.

Our final Fedora album from this set is a real gem. Fedora chief Chris Millar bought a bunch of old, long lost acetate master discs a few years back. He was disappointed with most of the stuff until he started listening to a couple of early 1960s sessions from the very obscure Fresno street musician Ollie Watkins. Most of what Millar was able to learn about Watkins and how he came to record these dozen songs came from the between-song studio chatter, some of which is included on this album, Used To Keep Me Worried. This is raw, Texas-style blues in the style of Blind Lemon Jefferson and Frankie Lee Sims, played on what is suspected to be a battered old Sears & Roebuck guitar. The better numbers are the gospel songs, including the crude, haunting and dirge like à capella spiritual "Let Me Go" and the backwoods-sounding "Lord I Want To Go Through." While not a great guitarist, he shows nice dexterity on another spiritual, "Precious Lord." Just so you know that Watkins played a lot of Saturday nights, too, he does a raucous raw blues, "Woman I've Been Knowin'." Since much of Watkins' work was done on street corners, he had to do a wide variety of music, so we get to hear two versions of "California Blues (Blue Yodel Number 4)." I'd like to thank Chris Millar for salvaging the Used To Keep Me Worried sessions for all of us to finally hear the blues of Ollie Watkins.

Chris BeardBorn To Play The Blues is an appropriate title for the newest CD from 43-year-old Chris Beard, as the Rochester, NY-based guitarist is the son of Joe Beard, whose last several albums have been reviewed here in Blues Bytes. This release on JSP Records shows the younger Beard as a strong, contemporary, "no nonsense" blues guy, a nice vocalist and red hot guitarist. Born To Play The Blues gets a fresh, strong jolt from a pair of 18-year-old backing musicians in sax player Quinn Lawrence and keyboardist J.J. Moscato. The highlights here are the slow, late night blues original "Somebody's Sleeping," with a solid foundation laid down by Moscato's piano and organ, and the funky Albert Collins-style shuffle, "Born To Play The Blues." Beard's best vocal work is heard on another slow tune, "I Still Owe You," as his voice takes on a rich soulful tone. I hope someone takes this band and sends them on a cross-country tour; I'll be waiting in line to see these cats hit the stage.

Matt "Guitar" Murphy needs no introduction to most Blues Bytes readers, as casual blues fans know him from his appearances in the Blues Brothers movies, while more serious blues lovers are hip to his earlier work with artists like Memphis Slim and James Cotton. Murphy has always been regarded as a "guitar player's" guitar player and practically a pioneer in the use of electric guitar in the blues, but never noted as a singer. Murphy realizes his limitations and only sings on two of the 11 numbers on Lucky Charm (Roesch Records), sharing the vocals with Leon Pendarvis, David Foster and Howard Eldridge. This album also serves as a showcase for Pendarvis' excellent keyboard work ... don't miss his excellent piano playing on the slow blues "Time To Move On" and his organ work on the instrumental "J.F.A." My favorite cut is the uptempo shuffle "Willie Mae," with strong vocals from Eldridge and hot guitar licks from Murphy. My only complaint with the album is that Murphy's guitar playing is not out front as much as expected for a Matt "Guitar" Murphy CD. Leon Pendarvis should really get equally billing here, as he gets as much, if not more solo time. But that's a small gripe, as overall I like the material here.

An independent release that really pleasantly surprised me comes from Colorado artist Otis Taylor. White African (Northern Blues Music) features Taylor's brand of traditional blues and creative, introspective songwriting, but with a modern-day, 21st century feel to the music. Taylor is an adept multi-instrumentalist, playing very nice fingerpickin' guitar, banjo, harmonica and mandolin. He gives his music a real primal feel on "Resurrection Blues," with African-style guitar riffs in the intro before launching into a talking blues with lyrics like "...we all got to die, but some people have to suffer before they die..." For the spirited, raw blues sound of "Round and Round," Taylor provides accompaniment for his shouting vocals by playing some mean Sonny Terry-style harmonica. For an older blues style Taylor picks up the banjo and plays some frantic licks on the intense "Momma Don't You Do It." "Saint Martha Blues" tells the story of Taylor's great grandmother and the adversities she faced after the lynching of her husband in Louisiana. Taylor also covers topics like the death of a child due to lack of medical care, the framing of a hobo for a murder he didn't commit, and a Navajo man who drank so much he lost his horse. White African is not something you'll want to play at your next party. But for a dose of the real blues, it doesn't get much better than this. You can find more info on Otis Taylor and this CD at or

It's hard to categorize the music put out by the Funky Blues Messiahs ... it's got heavy elements of New Orleans-style funk with an "alt" edge, a little gospel and soul, and even a small touch of blues. Lost In Mississippi (Trackspotting Records) won't be for everyone, but it's a wild ride for listeners wanting something different. "Uptown Groove" is a Neville Brothers-style funk with a Blues Traveller-like harmonica solo ... just don't expect Neville quality on the vocals. If you're looking for better vocal work, then check out the handclappin' gospel number "Trouble," with a hot female chorus. The foot tapping-est song is the bawdy "Louisiana Red House," with good piano and organ from bandleader Doug Bare. The music of Funky Blues Messiahs is an interesting trip if you care to take it. More info can be found at

I was real skeptical about a blues album from a singer calling herself Peach. Blues singers are supposed to have names like 'Big Mama' or something like that. The word 'peach' just doesn't evoke any blues memories for most people. As expected, the music on the self-released EP The Cure For You sounds a little sterile and not raw enough for the blues, although Peach has a nice, pleasant voice. But it shouldn't be overlooked, as there's some interesting stuff here. Peach gives a more nasally quality to her voice on the title cut, and an effective horn section blasts out over the midtempo funky beat. "I'm On Your Side" is a good blues shuffle that just needs a little more kick to be a top-notch tune. The closing cut, "I Wanna Roll With You," is the most interesting number here, with its street corner band sound. Long time Bonnie Raitt band member Freebo plays tuba here, while Arlan Schierbaum contributes good accordion. This last cut makes the whole disc, so there's potential for more good stuff from Peach. Check her out at

Drunk Man's Dream (Maple Island Records) is a good independent release from acoustic singer/songwriter Tom Feldmann. At first, I didn't think this one was anything special. But it grows on you as you keep listening. Feldmann strikes me as a bit of a "poor man's John Prine," and I mean that as a compliment. He's not a flashy guitarist or a great singer, but it all comes together well on his original numbers, which represent 11 of the 12 cuts here. The title cut is a good example of Feldmann's creative songwriting skills, while "Until I See You Again" and "Angel" demonstrate his fine fingerpickin' guitar talents. For info on this disk, contact Tom Feldmann at

We stay here in the desert for one last independent review from Arizona acoustic guitarist The Fat Cat - Todd Lorenz. His album, Reflections, shows Lorenz to be an above average guitarist, and a better instrumentalist than vocalist. I like his slide work on his signature "FatCat Blues," and he also plays well on the instrumental "Knock It Down!" You can listen for yourself at

--- Bill Mitchell

Johnny Jenkins, whose first two albums were released 26 years apart, has suddenly become Mr. Prolific, with two releases in less than a year. All In Good Time, his second release from Mean Old World Records, is a collection of soul and blues covers that have obviously made an impact on Jenkins' music. Of the ten tracks included, nine are covers ("Big Bad Wolf" is a remake of one of his Volt singles from the 60s). They range from Booker T.'s "Green Onions," Sam Cooke's "Having a Party" and Slim Harpo's "Scratch My Back" (complete with flubbed opening line). Jenkins is in pretty good voice and his guitar work is as strong and gritty as ever. The band, the same musicians as on his previous release, Handle With Care, is great, and they all really get a chance to stretch on the surging instrumental, "Honky Tonk" (which features some of Jenkins' best guitar). The CD also includes three traditional hymns handed down by the late Reverend Pearly Brown, a street minstrel in Macon, GA during the turbulent 1960s (whose "Mean Old World" was the inspiration for the naming of the Mean Old World label). Jenkins also does an emotional reading of William Bell's "Tribute to a King," which Bell wrote in memory of Otis Redding, who got his start in Jenkins' band, the Pinetoppers. All In Good Time sounds like the participants just got together and started playing the music that they grew up listening to, and had a ball doing it. It's available from, from, or from Look for another release from Johnny later this year. He's making up for lost time.

The Joe Richardson Express is making a lot of noise in the Austin, TX area. This three-piece group mixes swampy Louisiana blues with acoustic Delta blues and throws in a little bit of rock as well, sort of a Jimi Hendrix meets Ton Ton Macoute experience. It makes for an interesting gumbo on their recent release, Way Beyond the Blues (Viewpoint Records). Richardson was born and raised in southern Louisiana and his music definitely shows the influence of the region (as well as Hendrix). He is masterful on guitar, dobro, and harmonica, and his half-sung, half-spoken vocals compliment his songs perfectly. The Express can rock the house, as on the driving opener, "Medicine Man" or "Dead Man's Money," slow it down ("Come Home Baby" and "Please Don't Love Me Anymore"), or dive off into some downhome blues ("Please Don't Love Me Anymore" and "Showed My Soul To You"). Particularly enjoyable are "I've Seen the Devil," with Richardson on harp, and "Goin' On," with some tasty National Steel guitar work highlighted (don't stop your player at the end of the song, there's a great instrumental track that follows). Drummer Mike Taylor and bassist Kevin Phelan provide rock-solid backing throughout the CD. In short, this is a great release by a seasoned musician who knows his way around the blues. This CD is available from, from Viewpoint Records (P. O. Box 5028, Austin, TX 78763), or from . Give this one a spin. 

If your type of blues is the urban kind with a dash of Memphis soul, then Fred Sanders' Long Time Comin' (Mempho Records) might be what you're looking for. Sanders, at one time the house guitarist at the famous Club Paradise in Memphis, has brought forth a wonderful disc that will leave you wondering how this could be his first solo effort. Born in Memphis in 1939, Sanders joined the military and migrated to Texas, where he honed his craft until 1968 when he returned to Memphis. According to the liner notes, Sanders has over the years played with many notables, including Bobby Bland, Albert King, Johnnie Taylor, Duke Ellington's Orchestra, and Count Basie's Band,  as well as touring with the Memphis Blues Caravan. In addition, he can be seen just about every day of the week playing at Handy Park. Though he sports an acoustic guitar on the CD cover, this set is electric blues, in more ways than one. Sanders wrote, or co-wrote, ten of the 12 tracks (the two covers are Albert King's "Everybody Wants To Go To Heaven" and B.B. King's "Who Are You"). While all the songs are good, the standout tracks include the shuffles "I Got A Feeling" and "Light Bulb," the funky instrumental "Big Bad Wolf," the Jimmy Reed-influenced "Hey Baby," and "Hello Baby" (where his Texas influence is displayed). The soul-drenched "House Is Not A Home" is also a highlight. Sanders is solid in the vocal department and plays a lean, mean guitar style that sounds like it could have been recorded in the 60s, yet still has a modern edge to it. The band is great, capturing that Memphis sound perfectly with its sturdy rhythm section (with co-producer Brad Webb and David Dunn on bass and Tony Adams on drums) and some noteworthy B-3 work from Russell Wheeler. The production is seamless, but not slick, making you feel as if you are at the Club Paradise watching Sanders perform. This is an outstanding CD with a lot to offer for fans of blues, R&B, and soul. 

--- Graham Clarke

Train Don't Leave MeTrain Don't Leave Me (Arhoolie) is a live recording from the first annual Sacred Steel Convention held in Rollins College, Winter Park, Florida in March/April 2000, and it is the sixth CD in Arhoolie's Sacred Steel series. It is bang full of great blues with a gospel slant and some really rocking guitar from people of whom I had mainly never heard. When the CD arrived and I read through the titles of the tracks, I wasn't sure that this was going to be for me. But I can't stop playing it!
From track one to track 14 it is full of atmosphere and good music. I wish I had been at the convention to soak it all up, but the CD will have to do. If, like me, you like some tradition in your blues, then you are going to love this CD. The tracks are mixed between pedal-steel and lap-steel in almost equal amounts, with the very talented Dante Harmon playing pedal steel guitar on the opening track and drums on three others. His brothers Eddie and Enrico also appear on the CD amongst a huge line up of supreme talent. It's extremely difficult to pick out one musician here as being better than any of the others. But I have to mention the vocals of Cherlyn Bennett, who sings "See What The End Gonna Be" over the pedal steel of husband Lonnie "Big Ben" Bennett --- beautiful, haunting vocals that keep you coming back for more. One word of warning --- this CD will damage your ankles!! My feet were tapping so hard while I listened to this CD over and over again, that my ankles felt like I had run a marathon! Blues lovers --- buy it now!

For someone just starting a blues collection, Pure Blues (UTV Records) is a superb compilation CD to get it under way, although most dedicated blues fans will already have the majority of these tracks. There's a good mix of old and new, with one or two unusual additions that might make it interesting for non-beginners --- tracks such as Kenny Wayne Shepherd's "Shame Shame Shame" and Jonny Lang's "Good Morning Little Schoolgirl," a couple of old standards brought bang up-to-date by young and fast rising blues men. For beginners, the inclusion of Luther Allison ("Little Red Rooster"), Buddy Guy ("Let Me Love You Baby"), Howling Wolf ("Spoonful") and Albert King ("Born Under A Bad Sign"), amongst others, gets any collection off to a flying start --- and there's also some nice notes and potted histories of the artists. As far as I can see, there's about 50 years of blues included in the 20 tracks featured on this CD, and that's no bad thing --- with a mix of old and new, from Muddy Waters to Susan Tedeschi, calling in at Eric Clapton, The Allman Brothers and Robert Cray on the way through. A really good start for new blues fans.

--- Terry Clear

Deep Detroit by Harmonica Shah is distributed in the U.S by South Side Records, but owned by Bluetrack Records in England. It is Shah first solo CD, recorded live in the studio. The CD kicks off with Shah stating his admiration for two of the greatest bluesmen, Junior Wells and Buddy Guy, and then leads into one of the best tracks on this CD entitled "Dun Made My Getaway." This track is a straight-forward, no-nonsense Chicago Blues via Detroit that would make Junior and Buddy very proud, with simmering guitar and harmonica work by Howard Glazer and Shah. "Flat Down On My Back" starts off with a great groove that it never loses or changes, staying in the groove for a smash mouth, in your face blues. The next song is a cover of Lazy Lester's "Bloodstains Upside The Wall" that stays true to the original, but allows Shah to put his own touch on it. Up next is a cover of the Willie Dixon tune "Mellow Down Easy," which Shah turns into his own. As he says at the end, "that tune's been around for a while but no one plays it like that." "What's On Your Mind" is a cover of a Jimmy Reed song, taken really slow, and has some wonderful guitar by Howard Glazer. "Woman Let It Groove" is an instrumental with Glazer and Shah showing off their talents on their instruments. After "Don't Kick Me To The Curb" comes a cover of Sonny Boy Williamson I's "Born Blind," done exceptionally well by the band. The last three songs are all Shah originals, "Do You Remember," "Once Upon A Time" and "Repo Man," with "Once Upon A Time" the better of these with a some great harmonica and guitar work by Shah and Glazer. This CD is full of straight-forward Detroit blues, very solid with no standout tracks or no disappointing songs, either.

Raising Hell (South Side Records), the follow up to South Side Slim's debut, Five Steps, really ups the ante for what to expect next from this young artist. Slim goes through many genres of the blues on this disc and all of them work well, which is usually hard to say for someone who covers so much ground on one CD. Slim starts off the CD with three songs more in the rock vein without losing any power of the blues. On "Blues For Sure," Slim shows off his incredible talent on the guitar and melding lyrics from a Talking Heads song. "Roadblock" starts off with some screaming guitar licks and a backing of sax, organ, bass, and drums locking into each other with a non-stop rhythm that drives the song along. "8 O'Clock In The Morning" is a tale of a daydreaming person in their car in a traffic jam wishing for a vacation and to become rich. "Young Man" shows Slim knows how to add a jazzy, swing feel to his music and not lose any of the edge in his music. "Comin' To Your House" has a great shuffle feel, while "Almost Daylight" is a simmering heartbreaking slow blues tune. "Raisin' Hell" is a scorching blues song with great guitar and band work, while "Another Lonely Night" keeps up the fast pace with incredible guitar and vocal work, making this track the highlight of the CD. "You Can Never Tell" is another shuffle tune that is moved along by the guitar of Slim. The one minor problem with this disc is the next song, "Kitchen Floor," which would have fit perfectly on "Five Steps." Although not a bad song, it seems to interrupt the flow the CD has had. The disc ends on two good but unspectacular songs, "Big Money" and "I Wish I Was Blind," the latter a slow blues in the mold of "Almost Daylight" and just as good. Slim has improved since the release of "Five Steps," and it is great to hear something this fresh, exciting, and unique from a young up-and-coming bluesman. I hope to hear more from him in the future.

--- Kris Handel

John Hammond - Wicked GrinJohn Hammond is a gifted guitar and harp player with pleasant, earthy vocal talents, but not a songwriter. In contrast, Tom Waits is a fairly decent guitar player with a rough gravely voice that die hard Waits fans (like myself) find mesmerizing, but most other listeners tolerate because of his second-to-none ability to weave an absorbing tale of life's ups and downs in the space of five minutes or less. The collaboration of these two talents comes together in an elegant yet off beat union for an album that is sure to strike a nerve by everyone who listens to it. The release of Hammond's Wicked Grin (Pointblank/Virgin) may signify one of the greatest musical "meet you halfways" the music world has born witness to since Ella Fitzgerald sang everyone's songbook. Translation --- Hammond covers 12 Waits tunes out of a total of 13 with similar arrangements remaining faithful to the originals, yet somehow managing to wring a bit more heartfelt emotion from them. "Heartattack And Vine" and "Jockey Full of Bourbon" are two tales of the seedy side of urban life that best illustrates this. Hammond's vocals are somewhat atypical, leaning on the gruff soulful side this time out. But make no mistake, it works perfectly in a surreal gloomy sort of fashion. I feel it only fair to mention at this point that the producer and second guitarist on this stunning recording is none other than Tom Waits himself, who adds his whiskey soaked vocals for the finale, the traditional gospel number "I Know I've Been Changed." "16 Shells From A Thirty-Ought Six" and "Big Black Mariah" would probably be considered the two most upbeat numbers of the collection with their take charge pounding arrangements. The somber "Murder In The Red Barn" is Waits' storytelling at its optimum, painstakingly realized by Hammond's colorful moody vocals. From a musical standpoint the supporting musicians just don't get any better than those found here. The great piano and organ of Tex-Mex legend Auggie Myers is present throughout with a foray or two on accordion. Two gentleman that are no strangers to recording Waits material due to their sessions with him are the incomparable Larry Taylor on bass and the satiny percussive splendor of Stephen Hodges, whose cymbal-less approach to these sessions is a tad eerie but utterly fascinating. Charlie Musselwhite's sleek harp work graces "Clap Hands," "Get Behind The Mule" and "Big Black Mariah," adding a little bit of extra spit and polish to these numbers. Over the years writers of album/CD reviews have tended to overanalyze Tom Waits' lyrics for hidden personal connections or double entendre meanings into life's mysteries, and end up sounding like complete blowhards. When I sat down to write this review I vowed I would try to do as little of that as possible and let the music on this destined to be a classic speak for itself. Hammond's vocal and guitar phrasings are superb, the supporting band is incredible, and the material ingenuously written from the heart and soul of one of greatest songwriters of the modern era. But be forewarned --- this is not a blues record for the weak of heart. It's dark, moody, dreary and downright depressing at times. Hardcore John Hammond fans and blues traditionalists will in all likelihood hate it. But for those of you who are looking for something a little bit different and off the beaten formulated blues path, this album is sure to leave you with a Wicked Grin. This one is going to be remembered for years to come.

It's been almost two years since Debbie Davies released a new album, and Love the Game (Shanachie) is a smoking addition to her already impressive catalog. Ms. Davies is in spectacular form this time out with her "in house" band of Alan J. Hager and Don Castagno rejoining her after 1999's ultra slick collaboration with Double Trouble for Tales From The Austin Motel. This lady seems to reinvent herself with every subsequent release, while consistently maturing both vocally and musically, making her one of the most interesting blues guitar slingers money can buy. If her latest nugget contains any flaws, I surely can't find them. From the opening chugging rhythms of the title track to the closing bars of the poignant "Grow Up, Old," Davies bestows an accurate portrait of the state of modern day blues upon the listener. Old friend and producer Duke Robillard sits in with Debbie on lead for the title track, and the funky gospel-flavored "Can't Live Like This No More." Robillard joins forces with Davies and another former Icebreaker, Coco Montoya, on the instrumental workout "Fired Up" that has the three trading off a few sizzling riffs. Robillard is also on hand on rhythm guitar for five other numbers and Montoya covers background vocals on two others. Taking time out from his own band, Bluestime, and making a rare guest appearance is Jay Geils, contributing some silky slide work to "Worst Kind Of Man," a tune dedicated to those naughty fellas your mamma warned you about. A healthy dose of ragtime country blues is heard on "Was Ya Blue," a number that finds Debbie stretching her acoustic legs a bit and the piano expertise of Dan Katz, whose craftsmanship is heard throughout the entire album. Straight ahead blues is on the menu with the shuffling "Keep Your Sins To Yourself" and the hard driving rhythms of "Can't Find The Blues," making these two tunes the standouts. "Funky Little Teapot" is a fun little tune that has a hidden meaning or two worked into its New Orleans-styled back beat. All of the selections are originals written by either Davies or a member of her band with a little bit of help here and there from Jon and Sally Tiven. Doug James and "Sax" Gordon Beadle make up the horn section peppered throughout the 13 tunes. Davies has paid more than her share of blues dues, first as a member of Albert Collins' Icebreakers and for several years now as a leader. Love The Game is a very solid outstanding album from a very classy woman who continues to grow as an artist, but retains the wink and a smile that is always so evident in her music. The unfortunate thing is now it's going to be a little while until her next release. Hope it's not another two years cuz this one was a lot of fun.

--- Steve Hinrichsen

Another fine effort by a blues lady, Spontaneous Combustion, is the latest from Nashville-born, Japan-bred, Canadian resident Ellen McIlwaine. Though she's been performing regularly since the late 60s, Ms. McIlwaine remains a relative unknown in North American blues circles, though she's apparently experienced newfound popularity in Europe. Tradition & Moderne, a German company, seems to be her recording home for now. This is her second effort for T&M, following the "Live in Germany" Women in Emotion. This is my first (aural) encounter with Ellen McIlwaine, and I must say I am very impressed. She is an excellent slide guitarist; she's got a clear and strong voice, and best of all, she's not afraid to explore different sonic territories. I love those who play the blues, but I also approve of those who play WITH the blues. On this recent outing, backed by bassist Bill Rich and drummer Kester Smith (both alumni of various Taj Mahal bands), McIlwaine brings elements of funk, reggae, and even Arabic and Indian music into the mix, and the results should please blues fans and world music lovers alike. Particularly impressive (jaw-dropping is more accurate) is her acoustic slide playing on her own "Dead End Street." I have no idea how she does that, but her guitar (a dobro?) sounds almost exactly like an Indian sitar. The illusion is even better on "Sidu (Grandmother)," with Smith's congas assuming the role of the tablas, though McIlwaine's improvised singing recalls some Middle Eastern chant. More American-sounding are her versions of Howlin' Wolf's "Sitting on Top of the World," solo at the piano, and her a capella duet with Taj Mahal on the traditional "Bid You Goodnight." Her melodramatic ballad, "Say a Single Word," meanwhile, could easily be redone into a hit country tune. Throw in funky covers of Al Green's "Take Me to the River" and Jimi Hendrix' "Up from the Skies," and a couple of reggae-flavored tunes (including another duet with Taj Mahal, on the classic "Mockingbird"), and this sends this CD very near the top of my list of Best Surprises. Apparently, Bonnie Raitt is not the only redhead playing a mean slide.

Hanapepe Dream is a sequel to Taj Mahal and The Hula Blues Band's Sacred Island album from 1998, namely, a second "Hawaiian Project" for the ever curious and open-minded multi-instrumentalist born Henry St. Clair Fredericks. (It is also on the Tradition & Moderne label.) This time out, Taj lets the spotlight fall on his island crew a little bit more. Pat Cockett and Carlos Andrade sing a duet (their own "Moonlight Lady," a nice and delicate ballad), while tenor ukulele player Wayne Jacintho sings lead on "Livin' on Easy," the only track to feature Hawaiian lyrics. Aside from the fact that this time there are a little fewer original compositions, the formula is roughly the same as on Sacred Island. Slack-key guitar and Hawaiian steel guitar share the lead voice with various wind instruments, providing a wind-blown, palm tree-strewn sunny backdrop to Taj's gruff voice. There are outside influences as well. One gets to hear some reggae and calypso elements, and the pseudo-kitsch "Baby You're my Destiny" sounds like Louis Armstrong crooning some New Orleans oldie backed by an orchestra of studio musicians posing as natives (trust me on this). Among the better-known tunes given new guises are Mississippi John Hurt's "My Creole Belle," the traditional "Stagger Lee" and Bob Dylan's "All Along the Watchtower," the latter of which was previously used on the Jimi Hendrix tribute album, Blue Haze, which was reviewed here in November 2000. All in all, this is a pleasant and refreshing album, without the element of surprise that gave Sacred Island much of its charm, but with shorter and tighter songs. If you liked it the first time around, you should also enjoy this latest effort by Taj Mahal and The Hula Blues Band.

One of the hottest Canadian talents in the roots music field is guitarist Lester Quitzau. His previous effort, the collaborative Tri-Continental (reviewed here in September 2000), had much in common with the above records by Ellen McIlwaine and Taj Mahal in a sense that it explored the connections between the blues and the music from a strange land, in this case Madagascar. His latest CD is called So Here We Are (self-produced, see for details), and this time he is teamed with bassist Greg Johnston and drummer Lyle Molzan, who bring their expertise in rock to the table, creating something along the line of what Fat Possum set out to do, namely, a potent mixture of hard blues with some "trendy" beats and rhythms. The effect is very energetic, to say the least. The opening track, a 21st century version of "Rollin' and Tumblin'," is nothing short of amazing. (I'm happy to report that it works just as well as a set closer). Co-producers Quitzau and Joe Dunphy have done a great job. The songs flow into one another, and there are various sonic enhancements, for example, a car radio being scanned until one hears the opening bars of "Home on the Range." For all its modern-sounding tricks, this CD is also a treasure trove of beautiful acoustic slide, as on a new version of "Waiting" (a tune featured on the Tri-Continental album), and some downright funky bass playing. Verrrry interesting. And that turnaround at the 4:50 mark of "Release Me" gets me every time.

I like Robert Cray. I'm not one of those who say that he doesn't play enough guitar. I think his move into Memphis soul was perfectly justified, and I loved his 1999 album, The Robert Cray Band's Take Your Shoes Off, which I thought was his best effort in years. But I'm not so positive about his newest CD, Shoulda Been Home (Rykodisc). It's more of the same, modern sweet soul-blues with a few choice covers (including Mack Rice's "Love Sickness"), with Cray generally in a serene mood, as compared to the dark paranoia of his masterpiece, Strong Persuader. And in fact, for the first eight tracks, Shoulda Been Home works almost as well as Take Your Shoes Off, even throwing a few short but evocative solos. The problem is that the last third of the CD sounds like there were no more songs ready. "Far Away," with lyrics by Cray's wife, is OK, though the melody sounds barely developed and Cray's voice is too close to its lower limit. "Renew Blues" is a one-minute snippet of a jam. "Help Me Forget" has the most simplistic lyrics of all of Cray's catalog, and "The 12 Year-Old Boy" is the second Elmore James cover of the disk, fun and with plenty of raunchy guitar work, but not very inventive either. [Note: I am writing this review based on an advanced copy given to the media. The song sequence or selection may change once the CD is officially released.] The good news are two-fold. Cray and his band let her rip on Elmore James' "Cry for Me Baby," with a heavily distorted guitar solo, very unlike what we've come to expect from Cray. Keyboardist Jim Pugh has really emerged as a songwriter, with "Anytime" and "Out of Eden" being two of the best songs on the album.

There's nothing like jump blues to make me dust off my dancing shoes. Raoul and The Big Time is a Toronto-based outfit, fronted by actor/singer and harmonica player Raoul Bhaneja, that specializes in good times blues and jump, with Bhaneja writing new material that somehow sounds like it's the 50s again. You can get an idea of where the band comes from by looking at the classics they cover on their first, self-produced album, Big Time Blues (see for details). Wynonie Harris' "All She Wants to Do is Rock" is the opening track, and then there are Cleanhead Vinson's "Back Door Blues," Billy Boy Arnold's "Been Gone Too Long" and Johnny Guitar Watson's "Too Tired", along with "Who," a tune written by Bernard Roth that was included on the Harp Attack! album a few years back. With Ka-Cheong Liu's big booming acoustic bass and Bhaneja's chromatic harp, and a fine ear from co-producers Alec Fraser and Terry Wilkins, the original material blends perfectly with the classics, even when they get away from the usual verse/chorus pattern, as in the six-minute long "Bad Things." Given that Bhaneja is not yet 30, it is safe to say that there are many more fine moments to come our way from this band. In the mean time, it was voted Best Unsigned Band in last year's Maple Blues Awards, the Canadian equivalent to the Handy awards. Don't be surprised if their next CD gets some label's backing.

I'd like to say lots of nice things about Jimmy James' brand new disk, Blue Moon Rising (independent release; try to get a copy), but I can't. Even though Jimmy James may very well be the best and most-inventive guitar player in Quebec, his CD, entirely recorded in his garage and produced by himself, suffers from too many flaws for me to recommend it. The sound quality is below par, especially the vocal tracks, and most of the songs are way too long, something that an outside producer might have corrected. But then again, this is a guitarist that can be compared to Robben Ford, someone who can play the low-down blues and mind-boggling jazz fusion stuff, sometimes in the same song, even at the same time if he so desires, so there's something to be found here. This album is just not the best way to showcase his talent, far from it.

If you're not allergic to hip hop and reggae and ska, you might care to sample G. Love & Special Sauce's Electric Mile album (Epic/550-Music). Every music magazine must have run a story by now, what with John Medeski of Medeski, Martin & Wood sitting in on keyboards, so you might have run across the name already. Let me just say that underneath it all, the blues is very much alive in G. Love's music. "Hopeless Case" is a classic blues-rock riff with lyrics rapped instead of sung. The title track has elements of Celtic and Caribbean music mixed in, with a bluesy bridge, and "Poison" sounds exactly like something John Hammond Jr. could do. (Garrett Dutton, G. Love's real name, has been playing rack-harmonica ever since he saw Hammond perform in his native Philadelphia). So there you have it --- have fun exploring.

My Ojibway Experience: Strength & Hope is Billy Joe Green's first album in over 30 years of playing music (and a few more of hard living), so it makes sense that this Western Canadian guitarist shows just what he can do right from the start. The first track, the instrumental "Experience, Strength and Hope," is a blistering guitar workout showing that Green has learned all the right lessons from Jimi Hendrix, but also from Carlos Santana. Then comes a country blues, the acoustic-based "Nightmare Blues," followed by a power-slide rendition of Robert Johnson's "Stop Breakin' Down" and then a totally forgettable ballad (suffice it to say that compared to that stuff, what Engelbert Humperdinck does is downright heavy). Well, three out of four ain't bad, and the rest of the CD follows this pattern. But you must give this to Green --- he really puts his heart into what he's doing. This independent release is truly a labor of love, but also the work of a man with deep spiritual strength who's doing his best to help others. "Nightmare Blues," for example, is a classic tale of one man's travels and travails on the road, but in this case it is linked to his leaving school too young. Recognizing the importance for other kids to stay in school, Green has chosen to help by supporting an inner city breakfast program called the Aboriginal Youth & Family Well-being and Education Society. Green is also a very generous man --- one track on his CD, "Styling," showcases a group of young Ojibway singers and drummers called The Lake of the Woods Singers. It gives a whole new meaning to the word "guest" on an album. This track was taken from the Singers' cassette-only album Honouring Our Elders (Arbor Records), and it leads into the final track, where Green does his bit to honor an elder who greatly influenced him, Jeff Beck, in a slightly over-produced version of "Greensleeves." With its tough blues-rock and soulful classic blues, with some other stuff (ballads and Ojibway chants) thrown in, Billy Joe Green's first album is the absolute antithesis to routine. Recommended for open-minded listeners everywhere. Check it out at

--- Benoît Brière

"Where I come from the word 'reptile' is a term of endearment.......," writes Eric Clapton at the beginning of his liner notes for his new release Reptile on the Reprise label. For anyone who's a fan of Clapton's music, a virtual history of rock, blues and pop spanning from the early 60s grouping with John Mayall's Bluesbreakers to his most recent collaboration with B.B. King, his latest offering is certainly a term of endearment which will please any core of fans that have been picked up on the way through the years. Clapton is actually referring to his uncle Adrian, whom he credits his taste in all things cultural and musical. In Clapton's tribute we get a solid mix of sounds and styles that easily translate to everyone's taste, and most important every tune could find its way to any radio programmer's playlist, which could certainly power Reptile to the top of the charts. Armed with the core band that was used during the sessions with B.B. King, Reptile flourishes with a superior batch of tunes. Starting things off is the title track, a bit of a rarity for Clapton being a jazzy high-spirited instrumental. As expected we get treated to Clapton's take on the blues with songs like "Got You on My Mind" and Ray Charles's "Come Back Baby." Clapton struts his soulful self on a version of James Taylor's "Don't Let Me Be Lonely Tonight." Clapton's long running adoration with anything by J.J. Cale continues with a wonderful take on "Traveling Light," featuring the background stylings of the Impressions (who accompany Clapton on most of the remaining tunes). An old style boogie/ballad is thrown in for good measure with "Find Myself." A beautiful acoustic tune wraps up all the musical ties our ears have been graced with in the song "Son and Sylvia," lovingly titled after his uncle Adrian (nicknamed Son) and wife. A guest appearance by Billy Preston surprises us with his choice of instrument on this number, usually piano or keyboards, in this case harmonica. Another wonderful outing by the man most people claim is a "guitar God." I tend to agree.
Editor's Note: This album was also reviewed in the April 2000 issue of Blues Bytes.

--- Bruce Coen

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