Guitarist Calvin Newborn played at B. B. King’s first recording session in Memphis (and many of his subsequent ones). He’s a part of what is considered the First Family of Memphis Music; his father Finas was a talented drummer who played with Jimmie Lunceford and his brother Phineas was considered a musical genius on piano (There‘s an informative chapter on the Newborn family in Stanley Booth‘s quintessential book on Southern music, Rythm Oil). Calvin Newborn began playing guitar in Memphis as a teenager and was renowned for his flamboyant performances. A youngster named Elvis Presley stole some of his guitar licks as well as some of his moves. Newborn moved to New York in the mid 1950s, where he performed and recorded with artists like Lionel Hampton, Jimmy Forrest, Charlie Mingus, Hank Crawford, and Earl Hines. Over the years, Newborn has battled back from substance abuse and has continued to write music and perform, eventually settling in Jacksonville, Florida. Criminally under-recorded as a frontman, Newborn has emerged with a beautiful album of jazz and blues instrumentals called New Born (Yellow Dog Records). Newborn’s style of playing brings to mind the recordings of Wes Montgomery, Grant Green, and the ‘60s and early ‘70s recordings of George Benson, but though the majority of the eight tracks on New Born would be considered jazz, Newborn’s playing is deeply rooted in the blues. This is really apparent in a couple of songs, including his cover of brother Phineas’ “Newborn Blues” and “After Hours Blues,” which has a strong T-Bone Walker vibe. In addition, there is a gorgeous cover of Duke Ellington’s “Lush Life,” and Newborn’s jazz lineage is on display on the ethereal “Spirit Trane/Omnifarious” and the closer, “Blues & Beyond.” Newborn’s band gets ample opportunity to shine, and Scott Thompson (trumpet), Herman Green (sax/flute), Donald Brown (piano), and Charlie Wood (organ) make the most of their solo time. Bo-Keys bass player Scott Bomar produced the session, which was done at Sam Phillips Studio in Memphis. It’s nice to have Calvin Newborn back on the recording scene and hopefully there will be more to come.
In addition to Calvin Newborn’s new album, Yellow Dog is also releasing one of Newborn’s previous solo releases from the late 1990s, UpCity. “UpCity” was the nickname given to Newborn by jazz legend Miles Davis. The CD was originally released on Newborn’s own Omnifarious Music label, but suffered from limited distribution and was largely unheard, which is unfortunate. UpCity features even more of Newborn’s meaty guitar, which demonstrates that the line between jazz and blues guitar is a thin one. The album was recorded in two sessions; the Memphis session features mostly an organ trio, with Tony Thomas on B-3 and Tom Lonardo on drums, and the New York session features Bill Mobley (trumpet, flugelhorn, and arranger), Tony Reedus (drums), Jamil Nasser (bass), and Bill Easley (sax, flute). The Memphis session is definitely more blues-oriented, with Thomas’ funky B-3 fills nicely complementing Newborn’s guitar, particularly on “Vision” and “Seventh Heaven.” As far as individual songs go, the title cut sounds like Kind of Blue-era Miles Davis, while “Them New Blues” is a contemplative piece that will bring to mind Wes Montgomery, and “Song For Basie” gives a nod to the good Count. For good measure, there’s another reading of Phineas Newborn’s “Newborn Blues.” Fans of Wes Montgomery or Grant Green will find a lot to offer here. Hats off to Yellow Dog Records for getting this fine album back into circulation.
Veteran soul man Otis Clay has been gone from the recording scene for much too long. His most recent album of new material, This Time Around, was released way back in 1998, but fortunately we’ve had tons of reissues of his classic work on Hi Records as well as his earlier ’60s material to enjoy in the interim. Clay has now emerged with a new live recording on Blind Pig Records, Respect Yourself: Recorded Live at the Lucerne Blues Festival. Recorded in 2003, Respect Yourself finds Clay backed by a solid band, performing songs longtime fans will be familiar with. The set kicks off in a somewhat lackluster manner with two tracks from his last release, “You’re The One” and “When Hearts Grow Cold,” but when Clay jumps into O. V. Wright’s “Nickel and a Nail,” always a crowd-pleaser, things get heated up in a hurry and don’t let up. There’s also a cover of the late Ronnie Lovejoy’s “Sho Wasn’t Me” and a soulful take on Kris Kristofferson’s “For the Good Times.” Clay also reprises his early ’90s keeper, “I Can Take You to Heaven Tonight,” and puts a new shine on former labelmate Al Green’s “Love & Happiness.” As on any Otis Clay album, there’s a mix of soul and gospel songs and during the gospel medley, “Amen/This Little Light of Mine,” Clay gets a hand from Sharrie Williams on vocals. He closes out with George Clinton’s “I Just Wanna Testify” and the soul standard “Respect Yourself.” The band provides exemplary backing throughout and Clay’s voice, energy, and passion never cease to amaze and impress. Though not Clay’s best live recording (that would be the early ’80s classic Soul Man: Live In Japan), it certainly compares favorably to it and should keep you satisfied until Clay decides to return to the studio.
--- Graham Clarke
Subject to both the clarity and restrictions inherent in self-production, Mem Shannon's I'm From Phunkville (NorthernBlues Music) is the late night cab driver's tour of “Phunkville,” a place the listener osmoses as Shannon's destination when he's operating under the influence of his music. The nice thing about it is that it's a groovy place, swingin', happenin'; a place to drop your “Gs” and lose your keys, a place close enough to the real world to have funk, but distant enough for the word to have a different spelling. On to some Phunkville landmarks – It's a small town, you see, but deep. Of the 13 tour stops (songs) here, thirteen are colorful. Shannon's soulful voice is big enough to front some hefty ensembles. Several cuts are no less than intense. Lyrics range from poignant (“Forget About Me”) to playful ("I'll Kiss a Pit Bull"). “Eleanor Rigby” is played with rather than played, which is one way to handle covers. It can be interesting. In general, it's a translation piece between Reality and Phunkville, and also between blues and soul. If you care for either musical genre, I think you'll like this CD.
Guys like Chris Cotton, yelping, facile acoustic blues guitarists, perpetual borderline unknowns, are tough musical survivors. Every region of the US has got one. Every blues society dusts them off a couple of times a year. They're in the small pavilions at every blues festival. Thank goodness. They are the heirs of the people who took America's music out of the deep, Southern countryside and onto the paved roads in the late '20s through the Second World War. It is indisputably powerful, legitimate, authentic music. Supported on the disc I Watched the Devil Die (Yellow Dog Records) by the Jas. Mathus “Knockdown Society” circle of active Mississippi players and singers, it is particularly jumping and syncopated, at the same time, fun and dark. You, the listener, will find few strict lines between rhythm and lead in these 12 cuts, which, like all good, joyful, acoustic blues, sound as if they are teetering on the edge of error throughout, but never quite fall.
--- Arthur Shuey
Fathead is a five-piece group that combines soul, R&B, and funk into their pleasurable music. Their more distinguished sounds on Livelier Than Ever (Fathead) come from Al Lerman’s notorious harp and sax, Teddy Leonard’s breezy guitar, and John Mays’ enchanting vocals. Things begin with a lackadaisical version of "Let The Good Times Roll." The band is better suited to their nine originals, such as "Cockle Doodle-Do." Mays introduces "Hard Times" as his favorite. Then, he puts all he has into the song with its infectious rhythm. "Number Nine Train" is my favorite. Rooted in the Delta, the song is electrified and slyly funked up. Recorded December 31, 2003 and January 1, 2004 at what was supposed to be their farewell concert, the band originally had no intention to release it as their fifth CD. They only recorded the gig for prosperity. In concert, these 70 entertaining minutes were probably great. When experienced on CD, they inconsistently contain enthusiasm. A shorter album with stronger songs, e.g., "Steak and Potatoes," would have worked better. Although steeped in roots, this is not your typical blues album. However, you’ll enjoy the ultra-catchy tunes, great vocals, and the joyful experience of a well rounded band. Too bad, they struggle to maintain the high energy they are capable of creating.
--- Tim Holek
The Moondogs are a British band which was formed back in 1999, and their pedigree is pretty good – Derik Timms (vocals & guitar) previously played with Dave Edmunds, Albert Lee, George Harrison & Kiki Dee. Eddie Masters, the bass player, and Graham Walker, the drummer, both played with Albert Collins, B.B.King and Gary Moore. You would be right in thinking then that this band will produce some good blues – they do! The Blues'll Get Ya (Market Square) is an interesting mix of originals and covers, and the covers are top class – "Little Red Rooster," "The Midnight Rider" and "Baby Please Don’t Go," the latter played much as Van Morrison’s group Them played it back in the 1960s, rather than in the style of Big Joe Wiliams, etc. The CD opens with a rocking blues “Everything,” penned by leader Timms – it’s certainly not the best track on the album, and maybe the band would have been better advised to start with something stronger. However, that’s not to say that it’s a bad track, because it isn’t. It’s just that everything else is better. The cover of “The Midnight Rider” follows and this is where the band shows what they can do with a well known song that has been covered by a lot of big bands. They take Greg Allman’s original and change it subtly without spoiling it or losing the spirit of what Greg was saying – lovely guitar work from Timms just adds to the flavour. The album flows into a couple of blues ballads, “Travelling Show” and “Blue Tattoo” before hitting the title track “The Blues’ll Get Ya”. Timm’s wailing guitar opens the track in great style, and the track builds into something really good by the time that the vocals take off. It’s touch and go whether the title track is the best on the album, but I think it loses by a narrow margin to the Moondogs' version of Willie Dixon’s “Little Red Rooster.” This is a superb version of an old blues classic, and it has to take the credit as best on the CD for me. Halfway through the album and onto “Moon Dog Boogie” – a short and sweet instrumental that then flows into the heavy “That’s What She Said,” a sort of '80s rock ‘n roll blues. “Don’t Worry About A Thing” has shades of Tom Petty about it – possibly the weakest song on the CD, and certainly the one with the least blues content. Unfortunately, the band seems to have lost direction here, although “Tank Full Of Fuel” at least verges on being a blues track. By the time that the band gets into “Hitman,” they seem to have picked up a bit of Dire Straits influence, especially on Timms’ vocals. Suddenly they’re back to the blues on the final track with a fine rocking, driving, version of “Baby Please Don’t Go” that’s guaranteed to get your feet tapping. It’s a shame that tracks 9-11 don’t fit in with the rest of what is a great album, but it’s till worth adding to your collection.
Live At Blues On Grand (Bittersweet Records) is a CD that has been around for a while, but deserves to be listened to. It’s another live offering from Steve Arvey & West Side Heat, recorded at “Blues On Grand” in Des Moines, Iowa. The band were making a return visit to Blues On Grand, having first played there in 2002 and being impressed with the place and the soundman, Lee Bell. The band comprises Steve Arvey (of course) on lead guitar and vocals, Mark Hoekstra on harmonica, slide guitar and additional vocals, Michael Wagner on bass, and drummer Pete Kruse. The opening track, “Stranded,” and two others are written by Steve Arvey and Mark Hoekstra, there’s a contribution from sometime Arvey sideman Kraig Kenning (the excellent “How Do You Spell Love”), and a few covers. The CD opens in fine style and then settles down to the second Arvey/Hoekstra track, “Fine Line”, and good driving beat and some great harmonica from Hoekstra pushing things along. Between this and the next Arvey/Hoekstra song, there’s a Mike Jordan track “Mississippi,” a heavy blues with some poignant lyrics. The third band-written track is “Oh Lucky,” a song that puts me in mind of R.L.Burnside in the way that the band performs it, particularly Steve Arvey’s vocals. There’s a very nice version of Lowell Fulson’s classic track, “Reconsider Baby,” slowed right down to a lovely ballad speed, a cover of Little Walter’s “You’re So Fine,” and “Chicken Heads,” a track written by Bobby Rush and Calvin Carter. An unusual inclusion is Jimmy McCracklin’s “He Knows The Rules” – not many artists cover that one! This is another track that highlights the superb harmonica playing of Mark Hoekstra alongside Steve Arvey’s guitar, and it really is a gem. The last two tracks on the album are covers of the Elmore James song “Shake Your Money Maker” and the all-time classic blues number “Rollin’ & Tumblin,” the origins of which are lost in time but which is normally associated with the likes of Muddy Waters. These two covers are really excellent, and finish the CD off perfectly. “Shake Your Money Maker” really drives along at a cracking pace, and Elmore himself would be proud of it, I’m sure. The slide guitar work provided by Hoekstra is top notch, although a little too much in the background to do it complete justice, and the drummer pushes the other forward in fine style. Finally “Rollin’ & Tumblin’” closes the album down, but it takes a marvellous 11 minutes to do so, and it’s 11 minutes of pure joy for blues lovers. This CD might have been around for a while, but if you haven’t got it already, look out for it!
--- Terry Clear
An enjoyable foray into the area where the roots of the blues really evolved can be had from the Putumayo World Music sampler, Mali. The disc features 11 different contemporary West African artists, presenting a variety of entertaining styles. Music from Mali has often been described as "otherworldly" and the next musical style to cross over to world markets. It's not hard to find elements of other musical genres here, starting with the blues-style harmonica accompaniment on Idrissa Soumaoro's "Ouili Ka Bo." Ramatou Diakité hails from the southern region of Mali, an area noted for having more of a bluesy sound to the music; the instrumental work on "Gembi" shows that the distance from this music to the blues is a very short trip. Issa Bagayogo's "Bana" mixes more contemporary electronic music with traditional Malian songs in a hypnotic rhythm very accessible to world music markets. The guitar solo on the live cut "Saramaya," from Habib Koité and Bamada, is just as inspiring to blues fans as any heard in a blues song, not to mention the solo on the xylophone-sounding instrument. Like the blues, this is music that is felt even more than it is heard. Mali is more than just an academic study of the music of this rich cultural region; there is a lot of vibrant, enjoyable music here for those wishing to expand their boundaries.
Grimm Again (Real Music Records), from Southern California guitarist / singer Kathryn Grimm, would have made a strong EP. There's enough good material here for the shorter format, but not enough to make a good full-length CD. Grimm shows potential, both as a guitar player and vocalist, but with room for improvement in both areas. Her voice is her strong suit, as it's both pleasant and powerful. But Grimm's vocals often come across as a little too "clean" and not gritty enough for the blues. As a guitarist, she's good enough but sometimes tries to play beyond her capabilities. The song that shows the considerable potential here is the original "Never Lucky With Love," on which Grimm shows more vocal range than on other numbers and also features her best guitar work. There's also a good sax solo from Norair "Nono" Kayzakian. The disc closes with what could have been another strong number, the understated acoustic number, "Birthday Blues," on which a promising start is marred by the inclusion of synthesized strings halfway through the number. For more info, check Kathryn Grimm's web site.
--- Bill Mitchell
Do What'cha Do (Trust Me Baby Records), the new release by Li'l Ronnie and the Grand Dukes, could very well be the pole that vaults this band to the next level. It consists of 11 very well performed and very well written originals with a nice mix of Chicago and West Coast blues. Add that to having the master at having his band be constantly in a tight groove - Anson Funderburgh - as the record's producer, and this one is going to be a sure hit. The Grand Dukes consist of Ronnie Owens on harmonica and lead vocals, Michael Dutton on guitars and vocals, Tommy Hannigan on electric and acoustic bass, George Sheppard on drums and Steve Utt on piano and Hammond B3. Special guests on this project included Terry Hummer on tenor sax, Nate Hawks on baritone sax and Rattlesnake Slim on shakers. Ronnie's style is so diversified that I'm led to believe he has had many influences. As I listen to this CD, I hear a lot of different sounds, all of them good. Several tracks brought William Clarke, Darrell Nulisch, Sugar Ray Norcia and Rod Piazza to mind. "Just Like A Woman" is one of the tracks that helped fulfill Ronnie's child hood dream of putting a Chicago blues band together. This one is right out of a Muddy Waters mold. From Ronnie's vocals and harp, from Mike's guitar, and from Steve's piano, this was straight up blues at it's best. "Life's Changes" had the band in an equally hot Chicago style groove. On this one Ronnie switches his style of harp to that of one of my all time favorite players --- Jimmy Reed. "Love Trance" had me doing the mambo in my chair while tapping the keypad like it was a conga drum. George, Tommy, Rattlesnake and Steve had the rhythm just right on this one. Nowhere on this CD is Anson's influence more apparent than on "Just A Fool." Just as he always has with his Rockets, he now has the Grand Dukes into a very tight groove. This is everyone in the band being featured simultaneously, or as I like to think of it, seven musicians playing from one brain. It's baffling how perfect this can and does sound. Before I could even get to the point of saying anything about the last track, "Still Sweatin," I had to listen to it about seven or eight times. The first half a dozen times it was totally impossible for me to concentrate on anything other than the music. It's an instrumental that just carried me away. Right off the bat the horn section locks into a groove behind a very hot organ solo which slowly switches to the background as the horns take over; the transition was so smooth. Eventually the guitar and harp get in some hot licks while the whole band just smokes. Being an instrumental could hold it back, but this one has song of the year written all over it. All of the tracks not mentioned are as good as those mentioned. Now that I think about it, I could have very easily done this review with one word --- Wow!
--- Peter "Blewzzman" Lauro
George Friend came up
in Detroit, moved to San Francisco for a few years, tightened his chops
(and gigged with poet Allen Ginsberg), then moved back to Detroit and
gained even more playing experience as a member of the Sun Messengers
and jamming with other local musical dignitaries like Johnnie Bassett,
Alberta Adams and Thornetta Davis (and gigs with poet John Sinclair).
Based in Los Angeles since 1999, he brings a big chunk of all of the
foregoing experiences to this swinging debut disc, Looka Here
(Blues Leaf). With a mix of Angelinos (including Steve Mugalian, Rick
Holstrom and Jeff Turmes, his bandmate in the Janiva Magness Band) and
Detroiters (Don Greundler and Todd Glass) in the studio, the result is a
strong set. The opening instrumental, “The Grinder,” showcases Friend’s
jazzy guitar work over a deep backbeat anchored by Ron Dziubia’s sax.
The program is heavy on original material and the covers are well chosen
to show off his chops. His “Lazy Ass,” with Greundler at the hard
hitting traps, is an instrumental stretch-out that showcases his jazzy
West Coast licks. His version of the Joe Weaver title piece is a gem.
The slight echo on the vocals and Dziubia’s double duty sax and piano
give it an extra kick. The following “Whole Lotta Trouble” has a back
alley danger groove (“When you get to her house better wipe your
feet/she don’t want no scum from the Hollywood streets/Looka there/she’s
a whole lotta trouble”), and “All Jacked Up” is an instrumental
streamlined cruise down the coast. The originals “Drunkard’s Alibi” and
“Juicy” are followed by a fine take on a rarely heard Johnnie Bassett
instrumental, “1540 Special.” The closing “Wanna Tell” is another
spotlight on Friend’s songwriting and playing. The guitar work is dead
out of the 1950s and reflects his experience working with Robert Gordon.
A class set.
--- Mark E. Gallo
Records), the new disc from Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings, is a
refreshing dose of funk and soul in a rock & rap world. This is music
you can feel delivered by people that got the feeling. Sharon Jones
heralds from Augusta, Georgia as does a good reference point: James
Brown. Both got their start singing in church. She went on to do all
sorts of often uncredited backing vocals on gospel, soul, disco, and
blues recordings, eventually earning her the title "Queen of Funk." All
this experience, variety and skill contribute to an album that makes one
think Aretha Franklin and the JB's.
--- Tom Schulte
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