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May 2020

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Order these featured CDs today:

Victor Wainwright

Jim Gustin and Truth Jones

Tony Holiday

Archie Edwards and Dr Ross

Albert Castiglia

Junior Watson

The Mike Duke Project


Giles Robson

Sparky Parker

Paul Gabriel

Brad Vickers and His Vestapolitans

Wentus Blues Band

Jon Spear

The McNaMarr Project

Michael Bloom and the Blues Prophecy

Miss Bix


Victor Wainwright
Victor Wainwright was in the spotlight at the recent Blues Music Awards show, taking home the Pinetop Perkins award for best piano player in the last year. The dude's career has been on fire in the last few years, with the recent album by Victor Wainwright And The Train, Memphis Loud (Ruf Records) continuing a run of solid and intriguing recordings. Wainwright packs a wallop of energy into his music, with plenty of backing musicians adding to the big sound coming through the speakers. It's music that will have you tapping your feet and shaking your legs throughout the dozen Wainwright originals on Memphis Loud.

Wainwright lays down solid New Orleans piano in the opening of "Mississippi," a rollicking blues backed by plenty of horns and background singers. I like how much conviction and power there is in Wainwright's voice, leaving no doubt that he believes every word he's singing. Even more rambunctious is the next number, "Walk the Walk," with a wall of horns providing the introduction before Wainwright comes in with energetic piano playing and Pat Harrington adds some rockabilly-like guitar licks. And those horns just keep a' playin' throughout.

Does Wainwright ever slow down? Not yet, folks. He takes it up still another notch on the title cut, frantically pounding on the keyboards while horn players Mark Earley and Doug Woolverton just keep blowing away. Wainwight sings about that train that's coming through your town, so safely stand back from the tracks.

Okay, he finally slows it down with "Sing," a jazzy number that sounds like it could have been covered by Leon Redbone back in the day. Earley adds an extra dimension with his clarinet playing, nicely complementing Woolverton's trumpet work.

Jumping ahead to later in the album, Wainwright projects himself as Dr. John-style singer on the mid-tempo novelty tune, "South End of a North Bound Mule." Harrington and Greg Gumpel both chip in some nice guitar work here. Our star later sings a tribute to his canine companion on the up-tempo "My Dog Riley," forgiving his pal for drinking out of the toilet, rolling in the ground after a bath, and other crazy stuff that dogs do. While this number isn't really spiritual in any way, Wainwright puts a little bit of church in his piano playing on this one.

Wainwright reserves his laid-back, sentimental side for the end, with an extended version of a slow, soulful blues, "Reconcile," closing the set. Gumpel's blues guitar chords are especially effective as Wainwright's emotional  and inspirational vocals send out the message that he wants everyone to hear and believe in.

The career of Victor Wainwright And The Train has been moving faster than a runaway locomotive, so be sure to hop on when you can. Memphis Loud just reinforces what we've previously heard from the man.

--- Bill Mitchell

Jim Gustin and Truth JonesLessons Learned, an independent release distributed by CD Baby, was my first time hearing the music of Southern California band Jim Gustin & Truth Jones, although I've read reviews of some of their previous releases. Overall, I like the sound and repertoire of the band, but with one big exception --- I don't care at all for the vocals of bandleader Gustin, a big voice with a major rasp that comes across as off-key at times, kind of like a much-less subtler version of Tom Waits but much more in your face. On the other hand, I love the sultry, soulful vocals of Truth Jones (aka Jeri Goldenhar), and for me the album would be a real winner if Gustin stuck to playing the guitar, since he's a very strong blues player, and let Jones stay at the mic for the entirety. But other reviewers don't have a problem with Gustin's voice, so I'll chalk it up to my personal tastes.

Okay, that's enough about my preference for who should be singing on every cut. Let's take a look at what we're hearing on Lessons Learned. The album starts strong with a jump blues, "I'd Been Drinking'," showing a solid band with a big horn sound. Gustin and Jones share vocals, and Steve Alterman contributes strong piano accompaniment. Like every other cut here, it's a band original. Jones is the sole vocalist on the blues shuffle, "I Heard About You," showing off plenty of range as her voice soars through the octaves with Alterman putting out a strong organ solo.

The slow blues, "When This Ship Sails," gives Jones another chance to shine with her smoky vocals, while we hear a killer sax solo, presumably from Lawrence Tamez, and more nice piano from Alterman. It perhaps goes without saying the our aforementioned keyboard man is the unsung hero of this band, as his playing is consistently outstanding.

Gustin shows his stellar guitar work on the up-tempo, soulful blues, "All You Ever Bring Me Is The Blues," with Jones demonstrating the power in her voice as she projects over the great sound we get from the sax section. Oh yeah, Alternman is at it again with a nice piano solo, with overtones of gospel and New Orleans blues playing. For a different sound, Gustin and Jones share vocals on the acoustic number, "Never Too Big For The Blues," singing about their respective body sizes, with guests Tommy Marsh (slide guitar) and Chris LeRoi Hansen (harmonica) both providing the appropriate back porch sound.

Our two vocalists duet on the slow, late night blues, "My Love Is True," with Gustin's voice more restrained here, sounding a lot like Waits. The piano and sax accompaniment helps to carry this number.

This is a very solid band with good original material, and I especially love the songs when Jones steps up to the mic. I've already made my comments about my opinion on Gustin's voice, but don't let that scare you away from this fine album as your results may vary. I'm probably the outlier here, so I won't withhold a recommendation for Lessons Learned --- lots of good blues to be found here.

--- Bill Mitchell

Tony HolidayMemphis-based harmonica cat Tony Holiday burst onto the blues scene with his 2019 album, Porch Sessions, in which he traveled around sitting in with various other blues artists in rather informal settings. Instead of roaming around the country, Holiday stays in one place to record Soul Service (VizzTone), recorded recorded at the Zebra Ranch studios in North Mississippi with Holiday backed by a basic band of Landon Stone (guitar), Max Kaplan (bass) and Danny Banks (drums).

Soul Service consists of eight cuts (a rather short 30 minutes) of basic blues. Nothing fancy or eyepopping, but just good blues stuff especially Holiday's excellent harmonica playing. Our bandleader takes the first opportunity he can to show off on the harp, laying down a really nice solo on the opening cut, the mid-tempo blues "Payin' Rent on a Broken Home."

For my money the best cut here is a snaky blues, "Checkers on the Chessboard," which has Holiday smoothly sounding kind of Sinatra-ish on vocals. Also very interesting is "Day Dates (Turn into Night Dates)," which starts with a subtle jazzy bass beat before sounding a bit like an old country song.

A notable cover tune on Soul Service is a J.B. Lenioir composition, "Good Advice," a slow blues shuffle that could use a little more energy to it. Holiday ends the album with a train song, "Ol' Number 9," on which he emulates the appropriate locomotive sounds with his harmonic, with the tempo and volume ramping up in the final few chords.

Soul Service is a good album, but not a great one. I wanted to like it more than I did, but it needs a bit more oomph to put it over the top, not to mention the fact that it's a bit short in playing time. Still, there's some good blues here and it's worthy of your time.

--- Bill Mitchell

Archie Edwards and Dr RossWolf Records has released a nice set of live recordings by Archie Edwards & Dr. Ross, titled Piedmont Blues Meets Mississippi Delta Blues, the result of a 1988 concert in Athens, Greece featuring the two solo artists. Isaiah Ross, who often appeared as a one-man band, was the better-known performer, resulting from his early recordings for the Chess and Sun labels, with his notable recordings including "Boogie Disease" and "Chicago Breakdown." Edwards' biggest claim to fame was from his barbershop in Washington, D.C. that was the site of regular jam sessions, most notably attended by Mississippi John Hurt during the time the Delta blues legend lived in that area.

Piedmont Blues Meets Mississippi Delta Blues mixes 14 recordings from the concert. Sound quality is generally good with minimal crowd noise coming through the mix.

Ross, a left--handed guitarist who also played harmonica on a rack, does a fine, spirited version of "Chicago Breakdown," as well as other Ross originals, "Got Something To Tell You" and "My Little Woman." Among the covers done by Ross, his harmonica work on John Lee (Sonny Boy I) Williamson's "Good Morning Little Schoolgirl" stands out, followed later by an upbeat version of Big Joe Williams" "Baby Please Don't Go."

Edwards, who was born in Virginia, represents the Piedmont style of blues, although his guitar playing always showed the heavy Delta influences of both Hurt and Skip James. His renditions of a couple of traditional numbers, "Meet Me In The Bottom" and "Goin' Up The Country," nicely show off Edwards' varied influences. His original "The Road Is Rough And Rocky" is a song that Edwards wrote upon Hurt's death in tribute to his mentor, an outstanding example of Piedmont-style finger picking guitar.

Also included here are several strong originals that Edwards had recorded on albums for the L&R, NorthernBlues and Mapleshade labels, most notably his own "Pittsburgh Blues," "Baby, Please Give Me A Break" and "Little Girl," all featuring Edwards' strong vocals and exquisite Piedmont guitar.

This album presents a good introduction to a pair of outstanding artists that might not be known by all blues fans, and hopefully will provide the impetus to dig deeper into their respective blues catalogs. For others, like me, Piedmont Blues Meets Mississippi Delta Blues is a good trip down memory lane of the occasional live appearances that I saw from both Dr. Ross and Archie Edwards back in the 1980s.

--- Bill Mitchell

Albert CastigliaAlbert Castiglia plays a style of hard rockin', in-your-face blues that requires the listener to have had a recent EKG to make sure the heart is ready for the energy of this music, as well as getting a supply of ear plugs in order to protect the ears from the aural blast to follow. His latest, Wild At Heart (Gulf Coast Records), follows the same script as his previous recordings, with 11 cuts of big-time blues rock. For those that are into Castiglia's brand there's plenty of music here, with lots of long guitar wanks contributing to multiple songs exceeding eight or nine minutes in length.

Wild At Heart starts strong, with Castiglia blasting out Stevie Ray Vaughan-style guitar on "Let The Big Dog Eat," with very nice B3 from Lewis Stephens adding to the sound. I'm not real wild about the quality of Castiglia's voice, but if you're into his music it's for the guitar work and not for the vocals.

My favorites on the album are the bluesier numbers, notably the slower blues original, "Heavy," on which Castiglia sings, "...If trouble was women, you know I'd have a bevy, these days aren't getting hard, they're just getting heavy ..." Another keeper is Johnny Winter's "Too Much Seconal," a blues shuffle that goes on for more than eight minutes and stands out for a monster B3 organ solo from guest Jon Ginty. Another Castiglia original, "Keep On Swinging," is a 12-bar blues with plenty of heavy guitar, including producer Mike Zito sharing duties with Castiglia, plus nice piano accompaniment from Stephens. Zito also contributed one of his songs, "Hoodoo On Me," an up-tempo blues shuffle with Castiglia bending the guitar strings on some monster solos.

There's plenty more on Wild At Heart to entice fans of this blues rock genre, with Castiglia on fire throughout.

--- Bill Mitchell

Junior WatsonAs I’ve mentioned before, I’m a bit behind in writing reviews for CDs, which explains why I’m just now getting to a review of one of my favorite 2019 releases, Junior Watson’s Nothin’ To It But To Do It (Little Village Foundation). Watson is a living legend on the West Coast blues scene, having been a founding member of the Mighty Flyers, serving as guitarist for Canned Heat for ten years, later playing with as Lynwood Slim, as well as backing Gary Smith, Luther Tucker, Charlie Musselwhite, William Clarke, Harmonica George Smith, Jimmy Rogers and countless others.

One thing Watson has not done very much is record as a leader, with this set representing his first effort in a long time. Recorded at Kid Andersen’s Greaseland Studios (and co-produced by Watson and Andersen), this sparkling set features a whopping 15 tracks with an impressive band in tow --- Sax Gordon on, you guessed it, sax, Little Village head man Jim Pugh on keyboards, bassist Kedar Roy, drummer Andrew Guterman, Gary Smith on harmonica, and guest vocalists Lisa Leuschner Andersen and Alabama Mike. All get a chance in the spotlight, but Watson’s classy and clever guitar work is front and center.

This is Lisa Leuschner Andersen’s (Kid’s wife) debut as a lead singer, and she does a fine job vocalizing on several tracks, including the dazzling “Don’t Freeze On Me,” the jump blues “Whole Lot Of Lovin’,” the soul burner “One Way Street,” and “I Found You,” a nifty cover of Yvonne Fair’s version of the James Brown classic. She saves the best for last with the dynamite album closer, Chuck Sims’ “You’re Gonna Need Me Before I Need You.”

The marvelous Alabama Mike sings on two tracks, the slow blues “Shot In The Dark,” which he co-wrote with Watson, and Joe Boot’s rollicking “That’s Tough.” Alabama Mike, Watson, Pugh, and Gordon all get ample opportunity to shine on both of these great tracks. Watson himself sings on the mid-tempo shuffle “Louella,” “Well, You Know” (which also features West Coast harmonica master Gary Smith), and the free-wheeling “So Glad She’s Mine.”

There are also five wonderful instrumentals that really show Watson’s versatility and inventiveness. “Up And Out” kicks off the disc with a real old school flair, thanks to Gordon’s sax and Pugh’s old school organ. “Ska-Ra-Van” is a cool take on Duke Ellington’s “Caravan,” or a ska version previously done by The Skatalites. “Summer Love” is a smooth, pretty ballad with nice understated fret work, and “Space Flight” is a jazzy romp originally done by organist Sam Lazar in the early ’60s (with Grant Green on guitar) that gets a nice update from Watson, Pugh, and Gordon. The last instrumental, “The Pee Wee Classic,” is an excellent tribute to another West Coast guitar legend, Pee Wee Crayton.

Nothin’ To It But To Do It is a fabulous set, one of the best I’ve heard in a while, and further proof that Junior Watson should make his own albums a lot more often than he does. It sounds like he’s found a great cast to help him out, when he decides to do it again.

--- Graham Clarke

The Mike Duke ProjectThe Mike Duke Project was over 40 years in the making, hence the most appropriate title --- ... took a while (Little Village Foundation). Duke has been active since the ’70s, playing and writing songs with Wet Willie, The Outlaws, and Delbert McClinton, as well as spending several years as singer/keyboardist for The Solid Senders, the house band at Slim’s in San Francisco. But he’s probably best known as a songwriter for Huey Lewis & the News, penning a few of the band’s biggest hits in the ’80s.

In 1998, Bob Brown, former manager of Huey Lewis & the News who introduced Duke to the band in the early ’80s, bought an old roadhouse, Rancho Nicasio, and asked Duke to run its general store and lead the house band. …took a while includes a battery of tunes recorded by Duke between 1977 and 1998 at various locations, as well as four songs recorded at Rancho Nicasio in June of 2019, that show the keyboardist/singer/songwriter’s amazing talent in all three areas.

The two Lewis hits, “Hope You Love Me Like You Say” and “Doin’ It All For My Baby,” plus a third song the band recorded, “Let Her Go And Start Over,” all appear in their original early ’80s recordings from Duke, though the latter song has been remixed by Kid Andersen at Greaseland and added keyboards from Little Village founder Jimmy Pugh added. These three songs alone show why Brown saw something special in Duke. Several members of Wet Willie, Jimmy Hall, Larry Burwall, Jack Hall, and Bill Stewart lend Duke a hand on these tracks, which a soulful, Southern rock feel.

There are several other cool songs included on the 15-song set. “That’s What’s So Good About The South” was originally pitched to Dr. John and one wishes the good doctor had given it a shot. It’s a smooth, laidback tune that really captures the essence of the region. It was produced by Jack Pearson, who also plays guitar behind Duke’s vocal and piano. “Coming ‘Round Again” was offered to Gregg Allman shortly after his break-up with Cher and would have been an excellent fit in the singer’s repertoire. Duke recorded his track in 1977 and it’s surprising that his standout vocal didn’t completely sell Allman; it’s a truly impressive performance.

Other highlights include the upbeat, funky “Little Miss Ponytail,” the pop-soul “Ain’t No Easy Way,” and “Honey I Love You,” which sounds like a perfect fit for Delbert McClinton’s set list.

Duke also recorded four new songs for the set that are all standouts. The Crescent City-flavored “Let Me Be Your Fool Tonight” was recorded with the Zydeco Flames and included Angela Strehli on backing vocals. Guitarist Elvin Bishop sits in on the reflective “I Can’t Let You Go.” “I’m Not Sad Tonight” is soulful R&B, and “Torn & Scarred,” with just Duke’s piano and pleading vocal backed by Andersen’s bass, is just superb.

It’s almost criminal that it’s taken over 40 years for Mike Duke to get his voice and his songs heard by the general public. If anyone deserved to be heard by a wider audience, it’s certainly this guy. Fortunately, it looks like we won’t have to wait 40years for the sequel to …took a while.

--- Graham Clarke

GhaliaBelgian blues rocker Ghalia’s Ruf Records debut, Let The Demons Out, had a definite New Orleans blues flair as the singer/songwriter/guitarist teamed with locals Johnny Maestro & Mama’s Boys. For her sophomore Ruf release, Mississippi Blend, Ghalia moves to the Magnolia State in Coldwater, to the Zebra Ranch studio owned and operated by the Dickinson brothers. While bassist/co-producer Dean Zuccharo remains from Ghalia’s debut, she enlists a host of Hill Country favorites to collaborate – Cody Dickinson and Cedric Burnside alternate on drums, Lightnin’ Malcolm and Smokehouse Brown play guitars, and Watermelon Slim guests on harp and vocals.

Ghalia wrote or co-wrote nine of the 11 tracks and they’re a strong set, beginning with the catchy, crunching rocker “Gypsy Lady,” featuring Malcolm and Burnside in support. “Meet You Down The Road” has a slower, swampier vibe with Watermelon’s mournful harp and Ghalia and Brown’s lead and slide guitar work, but the playful “Squeeze” is a sexy, upbeat driver with Malcolm and Brown alternating lead guitar. “First Time I Died” is an intense tune with a passionate vocal from Ghalia and fiery guitar from Brown.

“Lucky Number” is a restless, hard-charging rocker with Slim sitting in on harmonica again. The album’s first cover is next, a sensational read of “Wade In The Water,” with Ghalia and Slim sharing lead vocals that’s so earthy it leaves dust in its wake. Slim adds backing vocals and harp on “Drag Me Down,” a peppy tune encouraging listeners not to give up on their dreams, and Ghalia’s scorching slide guitar accentuates the potent “Shake & Repeat.”

“Release Me” features Ghalia playing rhythm, slide, and dobro while turning in a marvelously soulful vocal. After the politically-charged boogie rocker, “Why Don’t You Sell Your Children,” Ghalia closes the disc with a wild rockabilly version of “I Thought I Told You Not To Tell Them,” an R&B obscurity originally recorded by Marie Knight in the late ’50s.

Ghalia is a great songwriter and guitarist, but I really like her voice. She manages to convey the right emotions for each song without going over the top and makes just as strong an impression. Mississippi Blend is a rock-solid set of blues and roots from one of the emerging stars of both genres.

--- Graham Clarke

Giles RobsonAt this year’s BMAs harmonica master Giles Robson became the third UK artist (after Peter Green and Eric Clapton) to take home an award for his contributions to the 2019 Alligator Records release Journeys To The Heart Of The Blues with Joe Louis Walker and Bruce Katz. Robson was also the first UK or European artists to appear on the Chicago record label. Capping off a busy 2019, Robson found time to release his debut American recording, Don’t Give Up On The Blues (American Showplace Music).

Robson penned all 12 tracks and is joined by keyboardist extraordinaire Katz, along with Aaron Lieberman (guitar), Antar Goodwin (bass), and Ray Hangen (drums). The album gets off to a rocking start with “Land To Land,” before rolling into the title track, which is a cool Windy City shuffle. “Damn Fool Way” shifts into the Bo Diddley beat with highly effective results, and “Your Dirty Look & Your Sneaky Grin” is a fine slow blues which gives Robson room to stretch out on harp.

“Show A Little Mercy” is an excellent mid-tempo shuffle with a tasty piano break from Katz and slide guitar from Lieberman, the lively “Boogie At The Showplace” is the first of three instrumentals on the album. An energetic workout between Robson and Katz, and the political fire of “Fearless Leaders” rings true given current events. The funky and upbeat “Hey, Hey Now” lightens the mood a bit, both in tone and lyrical content, and “Giles Theme,” the second instrumental, again teams up Robson and Katz, who plays B3 on this track this time around.

The shuffle “Life, With All It’s Charms” revisits the Chicago sound, .well, charmingly, and the dynamic and celebratory “That Ol’ Heartbreak Sound” keeps it there. The album closes with the third instrumental, “Way Past Midnight,” a lovely, gospel-flavored tune with wonderful musicianship from the entire band.

Don’t Give Up On The Blues has plenty of great music for fans of traditional and contemporary blues. It looks like 2019 was a super year for Giles Robson, but may just be the tip of the iceberg for this fine harp master.

--- Graham Clarke

Sparky ParkerHouston guitarist Sparky Parker has been playing professionally since high school, fronting the rock band Bayou Monster and playing in the blues band Mojofromopolis. Later joining the band Funky Mustard (a band he still plays with today), he also backed BMA Award winners Diunna Greenleaf and Vanessa Collier. He’s also played in his own Sparky Parker Band since 2012. His guitar work is influenced by Texas and Chicago blues, soul, R&B, and rock.

Parker’s latest release, In The Dark, offers ten tracks that show his mastery of those influences, with seven originals and three covers from The Rolling Stones, Slim Harpo, and Bobby “Blue” Bland. Parker handles vocals and guitar and is backed by his powerhouse band (Phillip Lock – bass, backing vocals and Kevin Berry – drums) with assistance from William Gorman (keyboards).

Parker’s wah-wah guitar launches the title track, which opens the disc. It’s funky and sure to be a crowd-pleasing rocker. The roadhouse rocker, “This Old Thing,” has a driving rhythm, and the upbeat “8 Days In The Doghouse” has a bit of a country feel via Parker’s guitar work. The ballad, “Games,” borrows musically from the great Guitar Slim’s “The Things I Used To Do” with affirmative results, and “Sleepy Town” is another fine slow burner with more of a rock-edged attack.

The loping “Good Man” is a solid Lone Star blues rocker, leading into Bland’s “Treat A Dog,” deftly mixing soul, blues, and rock. Parker’s take on The Stones’ “Dead Flowers” hews pretty closely to the original, which is not a bad thing. The third cover is a ragged raucous read of Harpo’s “Shake Your Hips” (is there any other kind?). The album’s lone instrumental, “Escape To Quintana,” is a nifty nod to the surf guitar instrumentals of the ’60s.

Parker’s tasteful guitar work and his confident vocals, combined with the rock-solid rhythm work of Lock and Berry, make In The Dark a most excellent listen that will please fans of Texas-flavored blues rock.

--- Graham Clarke

Paul GabrielGuitariist Paul Gabriel has been a mainstay on the Connecticut blues scene for five decades, sharing the stage with a host of blues legends, both past and present, appearing on albums by Blue In The Face, Harry Chapin and Rory Block, and touring with Michael Bolton, in addition to leading his own band throughout most of his career. His latest release, Man Of Many Blues (Smoke Ring Records), like his previous release, 2013’s What’s The Chance, was produced by his friend Duke Robillard, who also plays guitar.

The opening track, “I Feel Good,” is a swinging mid-tempo blues that features Roomful of Blues’ Mark Earley on tenor sax and Roomful alum Doug James on baritone sax. “Maybe We Can Talk Awhile” is a jazzy shuffle, “Cold Cold Cold” combines jazz and pop for a really smooth vibe, and the country blues, “It Be That Way Sometime,” features backing vocals from Christine Ohlman and harmonica from Sugar Ray Norcia. The funky blues, “No Finance, No Romance,” features guest vocalist Howard Eldridge.

Gabriel’s guitar chops are on full display on “Blues For Georgia,” a relaxed instrumental tribute to Georgia Louis, a gospel and blues vocalist Gabriel worked with for many years. The humorous stroll “Second Story Man” features some nice guitar work from Gabriel and Robillard, who also join forces on the lovely title track, which tells the tale of a man overcoming obstacles without compromising his values.

“Face Full Of Frown” is a jumping blues shuffle with horns and tasty guitar, and the gospel-flavored, “On That Train,” features Earley’s sax, Bruce Bears’ B3 and Ohlman’s backing vocals. “Just A Bitterness” is a splendid slow blues with wonderful guitar work, the soulful “Angel” is a tale of an unforgettable woman, and the closer, “Dear John Letter,” is a fiery blues rocker.

Gabriel is a talented guitarist in a variety of styles and he and Robillard complement each other well. Gabriel wrote or co-wrote all 13 tracks and shows a knack for unique lyrics covering familiar blues subjects. Man Of Many Blues is a sharp, classy set of contemporary blues that will satisfy any blues fan.

--- Graham Clarke

Brad VickersI’ve enjoyed Brad Vickers and his Vestapolitans’ good-natured, good-humored approach to traditional American music – blues, jazz, folk, ragtime, and rock – for a long time. His previous five albums never fail to impress with their musicianship, creativity, and heart, and their latest release, Twice As Nice (Man Hat Tone Records) continues to build and improve on the band’s quality catalog.

As with their previous efforts, this set consists of choice classic blues covers (four) and well-crafted originals (seven) from Vickers (guitars/vocals) and bassist/vocalist Margey Peters. The rest of the Vestapolitans (Jim Davis – tenor sax/clarinet, Bill Rankin – drums) are joined by several guests musicians – Dave Keyes (piano), Charlie Burnham (violin), Mikey Junior (harp and vocals), Dave Gross (guitar), Dean Shot (guitar), and V.D. King (baritone sax, guitar, tambourine, piano, upright bass, banjulele, organ, percussion, and co-producer with Vickers and Peters).

The album kicks off with a languid version of Big Maceo’s “Worried Life Blues” that swings and sways at a relaxed pace, and then picks up significantly with Vickers’ “Mississippi Swamp,” which borrows the “Rollin’ and Tumblin’ driving rhythm and features torrid harmonica from Mikey Junior and Vickers’ bottleneck guitar. Peters wrote and sings the cheerful mid-tempo “Love Can Win,” and backs Vickers on Jimmy Reed’s “Close Together,” which takes its sweet time and is all the better for doing so.

“Coast To Coast” is an old school rock n’ roller in the Chuck Berry tradition, and Peters’ seductively delivers the title track, which has an old timey jazz feel with Vickers’ bottleneck and Davis’ clarinet. Vickers’ “Red Dust” is a somber lament for the plight of the American Indian, with Vickers, Peters, and Little Mikey vocalizing over sparse musical accompaniment, and the blues shuffle “Everything I Need,” though penned by Peters, would have been a solid fit in Jimmy Reed’s repertoire.

“Stealin’ Stealin’” is from Memphis Jug Band legend Will Shade, and the Vestapolitans have a lot of fun with their rendition with Peters’ vocal delivery being playful and the band followings suit. Next up is a swinging cover of Tampa Red’s “Look A There Look A There,” with Vickers on vocal, that’s just as much fun, and Peters’ reflective “Brooklyn Evenings” deftly mixes vintage blues and jazz.

Brad Vickers and his Vestapolitans never disappoint this fan. I always look forward to any new release from them because you know you’ll get a quality set of traditional music that spans blues, jazz, R&B, and classic rock n’ roll like no one else does at this current point in time. Twice As Nice is a great place for the uninitiated to start experiencing this wonderful music, but you will not want to stop once you start.

--- Graham Clarke

Wentus Blues BandDuke Robillard met the Wentus Blues Band in 1987 during a Scandinavian tour while in Kokkola, Finland, where the band opened for his band. Robillard describes them as being so young at that time that their parents had to accompany them to their performances, but he was impressed with their talent and enthusiasm. A couple of decades later, the band invited Robillard to come back to Finland to play with them, and he was wowed by what a great band they had become and how much they respected the music and its history.

Recently, the band asked Robillard to produce an album for them and invited him to play on it as well. The result is Too Much Mustard! (Ramasound Records), recorded in Rhode Island by Jack Gauthier and produced by Robillard. The set features 15 tracks, with six songs written by the band, three by Robillard, and six wide-ranging covers that show the versatility of the band (Robban Hagnäs – bass, Nick Riippa – guitar, Pekka Gröhn – keyboards, Juho Kinaret – vocals/percussion, Daniel Hjereppe – drums/percussion).

The band’s original tunes are all solid, beginning with “She’s A Killer Hot Blonde,” a rocking rave-up. “Right In Your Arms” is a smooth slow blues and “Miranda” sounds like vintage R&B, while “You Got My Love” is a swinging blues. “Selma” is an old school love song, and “Where Have All The Songbirds Gone” has a Southern rock/roots feel. Robillard’s tunes include a pair he recorded on some of his early ’90s releases, “She Made Up My Mind” and “Passionate Kiss,” as well as the title track, a tasty instrumental.

The covers include a lively read of The Holmes Brothers’ “Stayed At The Party,” Tom Waits’ “2:19” (with Kinaret emulating Waits’ growl effectively), an electric reimagining of Robert Johnson’s “Judgement Day,” a somewhat ominous take on Leonard Cohen’s “First We Take Manhattan,” an appropriately swampy version of “I Hear You Knockin’,” and Chuck Willis’ classic “Feels So Bad.”

Too Much Mustard! is a fine release from the Wentus Blues Band, who does an excellent job whether playing traditional blues, R&B, or rock. Their original songs blend well with their diverse selection of cover tunes. Duke Robillard’s contributions as guitarist and producer (cover artist, too) are superb, and hopefully, we will get the chance to hear more from this talented band soon.

--- Graham Clarke

Jon SpearDusty Streets is a change of pace for singer/songwriter Jon Spear. The Central Virginia-based blues man has released three excellent blues albums in recent years that have received positive reviews, and finished well in the end-of-the-year contemporary blues charts. While those efforts focused on the blues and soul, Spear has also penned songs in other genres over the years --- country, folk, rock, and Americana --- but has never recorded them until now.

Dusty Streets is a six-song EP teaming Spear with some of Central Virginia’s finest roots musicians. On the haunting title track, singer Jennifer Dodge joins Spear for a duet about lost love using a ghost town as a metaphor. Jay Jessup’s pedal steel guitar adds country flavor to this touching track. “Forever Home” is a sweet tune taken from the perspective of a soon-to-be-adopted pet, and “Mr. Bankerman” is a jumping blues tune that wonders where the money goes (with harmonica from Dara James and piano from Marty Metcalfe).

On “Rollin’ On,” a tale of life on the road, James plays dobro while Spear plays 12-string and baritone. I was thrilled to hear “The Cremation of Sam McGee,” a retelling of Robert W. Service’s poem which I had not heard since my high school literature class.The raucous closer, “Time Machine Weed,” is a bluegrass delight with The Surreal Banditos providing musical support.

Dusty Streets is indeed a change of pace for Jon Spear, but it’s an entertaining one that certainly deserves to be heard. The musicianship is wonderful, Spear is a great songwriter in any genre, and his warm vocals are a perfect fit for these songs.

--- Graham Clarke

McNaMarr ProjectThe McNaMarr Project is the creation of Australians Andrea Marr (vocals) and John McNamara (vocals/lead guitar). I reviewed McNamara’s marvelous 2017 release Rollin’ With It and Marr’s impressive Natural from the same year. Both artists won multiple Australian Blues Music Award for their 2017 efforts and are much-loved in the Land Down Under. Based on their recent collaboration, Holla & Moan, they will soon be expanding their fan base considerably on a worldwide basis.

Recorded at the famed Royal Studios in Memphis, the duo enlisted an all-star cast of Bluff City blues and soul icons --- drummer Willie Hall, keyboardist Lester Snell, guitarist Bobby Manuel, bassist Ray Griffin, and a pristine horn section of Scott Thompson (trumpet), Lannie McMillan (tenor sax), and Jim Spake (baritone sax). The combination of the musicians and the ten new songs, all penned by McNamara and Farr, successfully capture the spirit and groove of the legendary Stax Records.

The energetic title tune gets the disc off to a rousing start. McNamara and Farr swap vocals on this and the other selections and their styles play off each other very well, a perfect mix of blues and soul. The deep Southern soul ballad, “Missing You,” is top notch, and “Throwing Down A Little Love” simmers along at a slow burn, while the ballad “History” sounds like a tune right out of the Stax catalog.

The catchy “Cry With Me” blends a bit of Stax and Motown, and the horn-fueled “Keep It Rollin’” leaves a little room for McNamara’s distinctive guitar work. “Can You Take The Heat” would have been a solid fit in Sam and Dave’s repertoire, and the ballad “No More Chains” is potent. “Something That’s Real” is a beautiful love ballad. The closer, “Blues Brought Me Here,” combines blues and soul with gospel, acknowledging a few blues legends in the process.

While John McNamara and Andrea Marr are dynamite individually, their collaboration as The McNaMarr Project is really something special. If vintage soul and blues is your bag, you definitely need to give Holla & Moan a spin.

--- Graham Clarke

Michael BloomMichael Bloom was born in Chicago, so maybe that accounts for his love of the blues. He’s been writing and playing the blues for most of his life, influenced by Robert Johnson, Jimmy Reed, Mississippi John Hurt, Otis Rush and B.B. King, Muddy Waters and Little Milton. He backed Mary Lane on guitar during his recent stint in Chicago, where he also recorded Whisper In The Wind as Michael Bloom and the Blues Prophecy (Bloom – vocals/guitar, Jeffery Labon – bass, and Andrew “Blaze” Thomas – drums).

Whisper In The Wind includes 11 songs, covers from Furry Lewis, Johnny Copeland, and Robert Johnson, and eight originals written by Bloom. Guest musicians include Ms. Lane, who sings on two tracks, guitarists Minuro Maruyama, Michael Damani, Tim Arnold, and Jono Manson, keyboardist Sumito “Ariyo” Ariyoshi, Brant Leeper, and Michael Damani, and vocalist Kristina Campbell.

“Time On My Hands” opens the disc, with Bloom offering scorching slide guitar, and Lane joins Bloom on vocals on the swampy title track. “Just Can’t Win” is a sturdy contemporary blues track with strong, soaring fretwork. “I Remember Love” is a more traditional blues with some sterling keyboard work from Leeper, and Furry Lewis’ “Brownsville” gets a cool, modern update with more great slide guitar from Bloom. Copeland’s “Old Man Blues” allows some fine slow burn soloing.

The love song, “Till I Met You,” has a bit of a pop flavor, and “No Luck At All” is a solid blues with a funky edge. The instrumental, “Lisa,” packs a southern rock wallop, and the clever, “I Ain’t Got The Blues,” shows the blues from a unique perspective. The closer is the blues standard, “Dust My Broom,” with vocals from Lane, piano from Damani and splendid slide work from Bloom.

Whisper In The Wind is a solid set of traditional and contemporary blues, delivered with style from Michael Bloom and the Blues Prophecy. Bloom is a talented tunesmith, guitarist, and vocalist, and hopefully, we’ll hear more from him soon.

--- Graham Clarke

Miss BixLeslie Bixler has had a diverse career, beginning as a singer/songwriter in her early 20s. She released a smooth jazz album (as Leslie Letven) that made the charts. She also released an album with her husband, Bill Bixler (of the Wild Blue Band). After her son was born she focused on children’s music, releasing two albums with Dick Van Dyke and winning a parent’s choice award. After her son was grown, she fell in love with the blues, spending time in Clarksdale, and from there she began collaborating with Ralph Carter (formerly with Eddie Money and co-author of “Shakin’”).

Now recording as Miss Bix & The Blues Fix, Bixler has released We Don’t Own The Blues, with Carter serving as co-producer (also playing guitar, bass, drums, keys on assorted tracks), and a host of talented musicians contributing – Franck Goldwasser and John “J.T.” Thomas (guitar), R.J. Mischo and Brian Calway (harmonica), and Gary Mallaber (drums). Bixler wrote all 12 songs, with Carter contributing to two.

The album opens with “Follow Me Down,” a swampy blues, followed by “Slave To The Grave,” a defiant slow burner. The shuffle, “If You’re Doing What I’m Thinking,” picks up the pace with stinging lead work from Goldwasser and Mischo’s harp. Goldwasser’s fret work also shines on the churning blues, “Gotta Get Off This Ride,” and the band sets a menacing tone to “Black Widow,” with Bixler seeking retribution for her mistreatment.

The ethereal “Voodoo Man” captures the sweaty, swampy essence of the Mississippi Delta, and Bixler’s seductive vocal carries the steamy “Crazy About You.” “You’re A Child” is a driving blues rocker with Red Hot Chili Peppers drummer Chad Smith (who worked with Bixler on her children’s albums) sitting in. The title track is a lively look at love found and lost, and how everybody’s susceptible to both. Bixler really pours it on for the heartrending ballad, “It Wasn’t Me.” Bill Bixler plays sax on the funky R&B track, “Baby Come Back,” and the album closes with the pensive “All The Time.”

Miss Bix’s trip to Clarksdale was a very successful one. We Don’t Own The Blues does a wonderful job of conveying the sound and feel of Mississippi blues and roots music. She has a wonderful voice for this material and is a fine songwriter, making this album worth checking out.

--- Graham Clarke

Starlite Campbell BandThe Starlite Campbell Band recently released “Stone Cold Crazy,” the first single from their upcoming album, The Language of Curiosity (due October, 2020). The band’s previous release, 2017’s Blueberry Pie, married the blues with undertones of rock, jazz, R&B, soul, and folk music, similar to the British blues bands of the late ’60s/early ’70s, and based on the energetic, driving blues rock qualities of “Stone Cold Crazy,” the new album should be on everyone’s 'must buy' list. It’s definitely a throwback to much simpler times and should serve as a nice preview for the rest of the album. You can check out the single (and pre-order the album) at the band’s website.

--- Graham Clarke



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