Blues Bytes

June 2005

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What's New

John Lee Hooker Jr.Let’s face it. If your father happened to be a Blues legend of the highest order and you decide to seek your fortune plying the same trade, there has to be a little bit of pressure, right? If your name happens to be John Lee Hooker, Jr., it has to be even less of a picnic, doesn‘t it? Hooker was one of the all-time legends, recording hundreds of albums of his swampy, Delta-based boogie over fifty-plus years. Let’s just say he’s familiar to most Blues fans. John Lee Hooker, Jr., now in his early fifties, has wanted to be a musician for years, even touring with his father while in his teens and singing alongside him on one of Hooker Sr.’s albums (1972’s Live At Soledad Prison). Unfortunately, the young Hooker battled personal problems of various sorts for 25 years, problems which derailed his music career before it even got started. In recent years, he has rebounded and now has a release on Kent Records, Blues With A Vengeance. Upon hearing John Lee Hooker, Jr., the first thing you will notice is that he sounds nothing like his father. Blues With A Vengeance owes more to conventional Urban Blues and R&B than to the loose-limbed Delta sounds that his dad mined so profusely over the years, and while the son does pay tribute to the father by covering several of his songs (“Dimples,” “Boom Boom,” “One Bourbon, One Scotch, One Beer,”), he doesn’t recreate them as much as he reinvents them, giving them a fresh, new sound. Hooker, Jr.’s original songs are the real treasures here, though. His compositions take a look at the usual subjects of blues songs, but he infuses them with a spirited sense of humor that raises these songs above the norm. “Suspicious” is a novel take on the traditional cheating lover topic. “Blues Ain’t Nothin’ But A Pimp” is taken from one of the elder Hooker’s most familiar quotes, and “Goin’ Down to Baghdad” is a humorous look at current events. Hooker, Jr. doesn’t play an instrument, at least on this release, but he is a very expressive vocalist with tons of soul and grit. His band provides excellent backing, particularly Will “Roc” Griffin on keyboards and John Garcia, Jr. on lead guitar. John Lee Hooker, Jr. shows tons of promise with his debut recording, one of the more original releases in recent memory. The son may not ever fill the father’s shoes, but he just might end up crafting a pretty nice pair of his own.

East St. Louis native Alvin Jett has been playing guitar for over 20 years, cutting his musical teeth under the tutelage of Tommy Bankhead. Now, coupled with his band, The Phat noiZ Band, Jett has released an impressive disc under the band’s own Phat noiZ Entertainment label. The CD, titled Wet My Beak, is an impressive mix of modern Blues and R&B, with a healthy dose of funk mixed in. The ten tracks are all originals composed by the band and the standouts are “Bluesman,” “Your Blues Ain’t Like Mine,” “East Side Woman,” and the swinging opening cut, “What Must A Player Do.” Other notable tracks include the funky title cut, which features some of the best guitar on the disc, and “China Doll.” Jett is a fine, versatile guitarist, and has a warm, engaging vocal style. The Phat noiZ Band provides rock solid backing, featuring a tight, young rhythm section in Matt Davis (bass) and Jeremy West (drums), and Frank Bauer who plays some dynamic and innovative sax throughout the disc, particularly on “Your Blues Ain’t Like Mine.” Wet My Beak has plenty to offer fans of both Blues and R&B and Jett and the Phat noiZ Band have a pretty bright future ahead of them if this one gets some play. Go to and do your part. The CD is also available at Amazon or at CDBaby.

--- Graham Clarke

The title and cover of Ass Whoopin!! leads you to believe it is an all-out guitar assault. It is not. Sure, some cuts stab and pierce but they do not produce incisions. South-side Chicago’s Eddie Vaan Shaw Jr. is the son of blues legend Eddie Shaw. Eddie Vaan began his career at age 11. Magic Sam introduced him to the guitar and young Shaw had the privilege to be raised on the laps of Elmore James, Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf. He has backed up all the greats and has recorded a pile of CDs with his father. This 73-minute disc contains 14 songs, including seven Eddie Vaan originals. The remainder includes well known covers. There is no mention when these tunes were recorded but the liner notes indicate they culled from sessions in Chicago, Mississippi, Austria and Germany. Eddie Vaan handles all vocals, guitar, and some piano. He is joined by a series of Chicago blues legends in addition to the Frankfurt All Stars. A couple numbers, “Never Used Blues” and “It Hurts Me Too,” are old-style Chicago blues. They sound like they could have been performed by Eddie Shaw and the Wolf Gang. These songs feature blues that rocks but not rockin’ blues. On the latter, Eddie Vaan floats up and down the fret-board in complete control. He proves he is not an anxious kid who pushes and pulls the strings without patience. He brings “Same Old Blues” into the new millennium with resonating delivery and a scintillating arrangement. The song is a highlight with Eddie’s rocket-fuel-powered fingers breaking the sound barrier. A longer live version also appears on the disc. Here, the guitar is sharper and cuts harder with another rocket launching guitar solo. The absence of harp and sax makes “TV Preacher” rock hard in a classic sense similar to Duane Allman’s “No Money Down.” Preacher’s lyrics are a riot: (‘Cry like Tammy Bakker / Smile like Jerry Farwell / Rob, steal, be rich and own a Cadillac too / Show you my leather Bible and my California tan / I wanna take all the people’s money / Have them buy away their blues.’). An animal attacks the piano on the hot-rocking “Roller Coaster Blues.” So you think acoustic music can’t come with a kick? Listen to “B.S. Makes The World Go Around” and you will be proved wrong. On it, Eddie Vaan sings, “I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired”, then he drop kicks the song the length of a football field. Here, the piano is brilliant. It just shines. “Give Me Time” is an acoustic ballad about being in love with a woman who isn’t in love with you. The listener wonders if it all ends in vain while enjoying the great song this situation has created. There is something missing from the production which holds this disc back. It has a late '60s/early '70s feel to it and the electric songs seem unplugged. Most of Eddie’s complex guitar solos are not blistering. They do contain many notes but they are delivered using a formula that makes them digestible. At times, he makes his guitar smoke while remaining true to the blues. He has an inviting voice if not one with dynamic range. Along with Michael Coleman, Big James Montgomery, and Melvin Taylor, Eddie Vaan Shaw Jr. is the future of the blues. With greater exposure, more marketing, and better CD production, he’ll take the blues world by storm.

Canada’s brightest young blues star is harmonica ace, David Rotundo. He wrote or co-wrote all 14 songs on his sophomore effort, Blues Ignited (Stone Pillar Productions). Boogies, shuffles, and ‘50s-style Chicago blues abound in his music. Having brief encounters, trying to win women’s hearts, and jiggling body parts is what he sings about. The band features the classic lineup of guitar, bass, piano, and drums. There isn’t an exorbitant amount of harp solos. However, the ones that exist are well timed, have an aggressive tone and impress without the need of shrill, piercing notes. Rotundo attempts the world record for holding a single note on "Talk To Me." The tune depicts his Sonny Boy Williamson and Little Walter influences. Rotundo also has a bias for Rod Piazza and William Clarke which is obvious on "I Want To Get Lucky" and "The Sway." Throughout, Enrico Crivellaro’s articulate guitar is brilliant especially on "Let’s Have A Good Time." It contains a catchy guitar hook with a Texas twist. You’ll think you are listening to a headlining artist when hearing this track. Unlike his debut CD, the new tunes are not as strong, so this disc’s 72 minutes last too long. However, the vocals and production have improved. The latter has captured a sound that disappeared decades ago. Only a couple tracks, "Drinking Overtime" and "Blues Ignited," capture the intensity displayed at Rotundo’s combustible live shows. With his harp and his hat, Rotundo would rather starve than sell out. While he is not about to go hungry, expect mightier things to come from this charismatic performer.

Sam MyersThis solo CD, Coming From The Old School (Electro-Fi), presents a Sam Myers that isn’t revealed on Anson Funderburgh releases. Myers’ Delta roots run deep on this 70-minute, traditional blues disc which mainly features his own songs. A 50-year career has left Myers’ vocals scratchy and aged. On "I’m Tired Of Your Jive," he has to stretch them to reach the notes. He abandons his straight forward harp for one that twills and shrills on "You Don’t Know What Love Is All About." Mel Brown’s warm and welcoming guitar makes you feel good because it feels like home. Throughout 14 songs, the band shines, especially Pat Carey’s steaming saxophone and Michael Fonfara’s accentuating piano/organ. Other songs feature the invincible Brown on piano or organ plus the extraordinary guitar of Jack de Keyzer. Most listeners haven’t experienced the trauma and prejudice that Myers sings about on these songs, but they get a vague feeling of what it must have been like. This CD contains blues the way they used to be performed and recorded. So, if you like your blues with a contemporary kick, this isn’t for you. The Electro-Fi president says, “Sam Myers comes from the school they tore down to build the old school.” His authenticity is a natural reflection of where real blues came from.

Alligator began their Deluxe Edition series as a tribute to their long-standing artists whose longevity has prevailed the test of time. Born in Kosciusko, Mississippi in 1944, Charlie Musselwhite grew up poor in Memphis. His first blues educators were local stars from the ’20s and '30s such as Furry Lewis. After a brush with the law at age 18, for running moonshine, he headed to Chicago in search of better employment. While living in the South Side ghetto, Musselwhite sat in with the greats of Chicago. He was tutored on harp by Big Walter Horton, and made his first recordings with him. Musselwhite broke onto the national scene with his 1967 debut album Stand Back! He ended up moving to California, but has spent most of his life on tour. Over his 40-year career, Musselwhite has recorded more than two dozen solo albums for various labels. Only a smidgen of his much-admired musicianship is sampled from his three Alligator albums which were recorded between 1990 and 1994. Still, you hear his Deep South influences (especially in his traditional acoustic guitar), probing and jazz-influenced harmonica, and overall laid-back sensibility. Each of the 12 previously released tracks, including nine Musselwhite originals, on this 62-minute disc have been re-mastered. Musselwhite has lived a hard-life and his melancholic voice reflects it. He is a far more confident with his songwriting and harp/guitar playing. Musselwhite plays his sensational mouth organ like a freewheeling piano man barreling up and down the 88s on “River Hip Mama.” The tempo of “Mean Ole Frisco” rocks and rolls like a bone-rattling train. Here, the guitar, bass, and drums are so intertwined, they roll along oblivious to Musselwhite. “Blues Got Me Again” relaxes as much as it provokes. As if he is in deep conversation with his best friend, self-reflective lyrics about personal battles like “I get to thinking about everywhere I been / blues don’t care where you’re going / don’t care where you been / thinking about a wasted life of women, wine, and gin / looks like blues done got me again“ are delivered. The autobiographical “The Blues Overtook Me” has an engulfing impact, musically and lyrically. Whether you are new to the blues or a converted supporter, you’ll relate to its lyrics like “blues made me drunk.” “When It Rains It Pours” is full of high ka-rumba. Here, the shrill harp is on the verge of eardrum piercing. “Movin’ And Groovin’” is a jam tune that features drum and bass solos. On it, Musselwhite’s wistful Mississippi saxophone carries your troubles away like a brisk wind. A full and brazen brass section features on “Mama Long Legs.” On “My Road Lies In Darkness,” Musselwhite gives a hint of his bleak side which was to come out on his non-Alligator albums. Musselwhite’s treasured musicianship is equaled on many tracks. The Blind Boys of Alabama add their unrivaled vocal harmony on “Bedside Of A Neighbor.” Andrew Jones Jr.’s masterful guitar is heard throughout, while Gene Taylor’s greasy piano is stellar on “If I Should Have Bad Luck.” Also included is an unreleased track from the In My Time sessions and a rare acoustic recording of Musselwhite accompanied by mentor Will Shade of the Memphis Jug Band. Unlike his most recent work, the focus here is strictly on the blues.

Tommy CastroDuring the second half of the ’90s, Tommy Castro helped to develop the contemporary blues sound of today. He grew up in San Jose, and became enthralled with the blues after realizing who influenced Eric Clapton and Mike Bloomfield. In 1991, Castro formed his own group. He sings charismatically, plays wailing guitar, and writes forceful rock and soul numbers. Soul Shaker is his first CD for Blind Pig in four years. Since leaving the swine label, he has appeared on a series of independent labels and one other major label. Ironically, Castro matured the most during his years away from Blind Pig. Now, he returns and presents his best CD as a peace-offering. The CD’s 12 songs were all written by Castro, who was assisted on each by other writers and band members. Throughout, he seems to be self-reflecting and soul-searching. (“This road’s like another wife”) states Castro on “Take Me Off The Road.” Time and time again, the ghost of Otis Redding can be heard in Castro’s vocals that moan, shout, scream, and hum. Shivers will run down your spine when hearing lyrics like: “I know that a time will come I don’t have to worry / I can see a time when the future looked so bright / I can see a time when nobody got a reason to fight / I’m only dreaming, but I hope and I pray that I’ll live to see that day” on “Anytime Soon.” You hear thoughts of hope, but detect age has brought on deep cynicism that cuts into the enthusiasm. Although you want to feel differently, deep down you agree with what Castro says on the song. The emotion-drenched tune is somewhat modeled on Redding’s “Dock Of The Bay.” It gets my vote for song of the year, and it should be burning up the Billboard charts. If Castro doesn’t have a hit with it, look for it to be performed as a duet with a diva and a pop star. If “Anytime Soon” is the dream crusher, then “What You Gonna’ Do Now” is the reality we are left facing. This thought-provoking song expresses questions that many of us cannot or do not want to address. How often have you considered: “Now that the party’s over / now that you're getting older / don’t you wonder what its all about / forget all about what you should have done / the best just might be yet to come.” “Wake Up Call” features a rhythm that is repetitious, but delicious. The song’s funky groove hook motivates you while the bewildering horns of Keith Crossan and Tom Poole complement the guitar. “The Crossanova” sounds like a flashback to the Booker T & The MG’s era. However, Crossan’s flute seems out of place. “The Next Right Thing” is sleek and chic, and loaded with funk thanks to The New Directions robust backing vocals. The maestro slide of Roy Rogers is a standout on the title track. “Big Love” contains an urban dance club mix that reaches out to the computerized generation. This is a group effort with no one hogging the spotlight. If anything, it’s Castro’s electrifying vocals which will draw your attention the most. You won’t find much blues here, and at times, Jim Pugh’s bossy keyboards need to be more audible. Castro’s focus has shifted to rock “Just Like Me” and soul “Anytime Soon,” and he excels at both. In a different age, Castro would have been the king of FM radio.

From Otis Taylor’s band and most recent CDs comes singer/songwriter/guitarist Eddie Turner. However, his hazy modernism couldn’t be further from Taylor’s dark folklore. Turner was born in Cuba, and raised in Chicago. In the early ’70s, he moved to the Rockies to attend University. Since music appealed to him far more than academia, Turner became absorbed in the local scene. A claim to fame arose when he landed the lead guitarist spot in Zephyr. When things didn’t work out, he found himself working as a realtor. In ’95, he hooked up with Taylor. Using drums that sound like a marching Cadet band, Turner’s debut album’s title track, Rise (NorthernBlues), explodes with passion, intensity, and fire. Suddenly, you are transfixed into another place and time. With acoustic guitars and loop programming, the all-instrumental “The River” is old and new. The spacey track will appeal to the digital age’s mainstream audience. Hendrix influences resound in Turner’s new world guitar. However, on “The Wind Cries Mary,” Turner’s robust voice proves to be his greatest asset. On “Gangster Of Love,” heavy funk meets R&B and asks psychedelic rock to join the dance. “Play It Cool” is as close to the blues as things get. On this deafening Freddie King tune, Turner pitches his guitar notes and sends them twisting, burning, and curving. “Sin” and “Privileged Life” are ultra-cool, and show us a world that many listeners cannot or will not penetrate. Both songs include arrangements and vocal styling popular on urban, contemporary black radio. “Was it my blackness or the color of my skin,” boldly questions Turner on the latter. Many other lyrics contain spiritual analogies. Turner’s forward-thinking music is blues-based, but it is ultra-modern and contains psychedelic rock. It is as relevant now as Derek And The Dominos’ debut must have been in 1970. Among 12 songs, three alluring instrumentals will intoxicate the straightest of the sober. Whether you were looking for a mind-altering experience or not, that is the state you will find yourself when these 43 minutes conclude. Without trying to attract a new audience, Turner will, undoubtedly, do just that. This is a stunning album, and the dawn of a new musical force and presence. The secret of Eddie Turner has been revealed. He could crossover as easily and quickly as Robert Randolph.

Grinderswitch’s heyday was back in the ’70s. They were a super talented band but never climbed to the status achieved by other southern rockers. In 1977, while working on their second LP, their recording career suddenly came to a screeching halt due to the popularity of disco. Not long after that the group folded, their singer/songwriter/guitarist, Dru Lombar, went on to create and front Dr. Hector & the Groove Injectors. When they disbanded, Lombar choose to resurrect Grinderswitch. Lombar is all that remains from the group’s original lineup. However, the new edition contains much of the same energy that gave the initial group its rough edge. More than 25 years have past since a Grinderswitch album has been recorded. Ghost Train From Georgia (New South Records) was a labor of love that took almost five years to make. Lombar describes it as “good honest music.” That is an accurate description. At their core, the new group is a five-piece and they are assisted by 11 guests. Lovely backing vocals are provided by the additional company. The blues-based eleven original numbers where mainly written by Lombar. “Holding On To Someone Letting Go” is a very moving slow blues with rattling keyboard fills and authentic southern rock guitar. When Lombar’s heartfelt vocals can no longer emit the passion he feels burning inside him, he lets his smoldering guitar complete the blaze. At times, his guitar notes sting like an electric shock. The powerhouse title track is what southern rock is all about. Surely, the boys have a hit on their hands with this tune. It contains that signature dual guitar lead where each is played in a slightly different key. Lyrics such as (“The ghost train from Georgia making the midnight run / From Macon to Atlanta until the morning sun / You can hear that whistle blowing as it makes a ghostly sound / Playing the heart of Dixie / Rolling from town to town”) depict southern pride and determination. “Help Me Lord” contains Church-style organ. The tempo softens in the middle of the song for a chance of private prayer between Lombar and the Lord. Perhaps the song reflects a new found direction and spirituality for Lombar? Of course, no southern rock album is complete without electric slide guitar. That’s what you get on the funky “When Two Hearts Beat As One”. Don’t be mislead, Grinderswitch isn’t all about twisted metal and iron. There are plenty of acoustic guitar accompaniments. Since the 60-minute album was recorded over four years, the songs lack consistency. As examples, the recording levels and production quality varies from track to track. Lombar’s vocals are warm but can be gruff. Still, the catchy songwriting and straightforward guitar remain the band’s greatest strengths. Other than at the gig or via the band’s website ( it may be difficult to find this disc. If you dig nostalgic southern rock, it’s worth the search.

Craig Horton doesn’t emulate blues from the 40s, 50s and 60s. In those days, he was helping to create the genre. This Bay Area singer/songwriter/guitarist is a rounded class act. On Touch of the Bluesman (Bad Daddy), "Find Another Fool" has a relaxed melody and delivers a message that is straight to the point. With a two beat, "Life of Luxury" rocks things up 1950s style. "Burnin’" is an instrumental with West Coast bounce that is enticed by a full horn section. The swinging "That Little Girl Can Dance" is loaded with big band bop, while "Wanda Jean" is a rhumba. Horton wrote the latter in the '50s. Percy Mayfield’s "Serves Me Right To Suffer" is played in a Texas groove that is reminiscent of the Fab T-Birds. Horns and backing vocals augment this CD to give a richer sound. With a four minute average, most of the 12 songs are short and sweet. All but one were written by Horton or members of the band. Throughout, Chris Burns’ keyboards are fluent. Unlike most guitar slingers, Horton isn’t out to gun down anything that comes his way. Craig’s guitar playing is soft and succinct which complements his expressive voice. This is a really good CD, but not a standout CD.

Roomful of BluesRoomful of Blues is a party band’s party band. On their 14th release, the eight member group sounds like a 1940s big band. Since 1967, Roomful has combined swing, rock, blues, and R&B. Back then, the band was started by guitarist Duke Robillard and keyboardist Al Copley. Three years later, a horn section was added. In 1977, their debut album broke them out of New England and into national attention. Robillard left in 1980 and over the years, the band was been home to at least 44 members. The current lineup includes a stomping three-piece horn section. They contribute significantly to the group’s swaying sound on Standing Room Only (Alligator), a follow-up to 2003’s That’s Right. Throughout 14 tracks, (eight original numbers and six obscure classics from the likes of Little Milton and Lowell Fulson), they flaunt their renowned signature sound. Singer/harpist Mark DuFresne sounds like a modern-day Frank Sinatra. Since joining the group in 2002, DuFresne has ignited a return to the band’s roots. His classy vocals are a highlight on “The Love You Lost On The Way” and “Sufferin’ With The Blues.” The arrangement on the latter goes against the band’s core fabric. This makes it an extremely difficult number to pull off. Much of the credit for making the song work must go to DuFresne’s soft and precise voice. The disc begins with boundless energy. “She Put A Spell On Me” allures with interest. Immediately, you want to hear more. “Boomerang” combines the sounds of the Fabulous Thunderbirds and the Downchild Blues Band. Here, Chris Vachon’s hot rockin’ guitar is set atop a non-stop rhythm that is punchy. On “Just Keep On Rockin’,” the horn-laden band performs hopping sounds from an era gone by. “Straight Jaquette” is a slinky instrumental, like ones heard in old-fashioned vinyl record shops. Their dancing music makes you feel great. A couple of songs, (“Boomerang” and “Just Keep On Rockin’”) are worthy of Song Of The Year, and most should be played on radio. Roomful’s exciting sound is a welcome alternate to guitar driven blues. If you are looking to lose some of those extra winter pounds, put on this bouncing 50-minute CD, and shake them loose.

“This is the most guitar-driven CD I’ve ever made. It just flat rocks,” says Tinsley Ellis about Live - Highwayman (Alligator). Clearly, he never intended to be a blues purist. The 47-year-old Atlanta-native is a disciple of fiery masters like Elmore James and consummate rockers like Johnny Winter. Ellis effortlessly blends gritty urban blues with edgy rock and roll. Mysteriously, he hasn’t become as popular as his southern rock contemporaries like the Allman Brothers. Things may change with his recent reunion with Alligator Records. The live CD was recorded at Chord On Blues in St. Charles, Illinois on March 25 and 26, 2005. At 79 minutes, it is the longest album in Alligator history. Label president Bruce Iglauer says, “This record was not repaired in the studio. This is exactly the way the music was played and sung.” Having seen Ellis perform one month after this savage disc was recorded, I can vouch for the sound’s authenticity. Iglauer and Ellis have captured a feels-like-being-there resonance. Ellis says, “The live album shows me in my element. I’m betting that people still like long jam songs. There is a larger audience for that then the industry says there is.” The disc’s 11 songs have an average length of seven minutes, and three of them clock in at 10 minutes. Ellis’ band is fueled on rock power, and they provide a trembling foundation. His rock and roll animals include Jeff Burch – a chain-free pit bull drummer, Todd Hamric – an energy-crazed keyboardist, and The Evil One – a ready to kill bass player. “Highwayman” contains plenty of foot pedal magic. “A Quitter Never Wins” is one of Ellis’ signature ballads. On it, he plays like there is a slow burning fire that is following him up the fret board. Ellis’ vocals are as assertive as his guitar on the hot rockin’ “Hell Or High Water.” Not all the selections sound as full as their studio counterparts. Due to Hamric’s thick organ, the Robert Cray style “Real Bad Way” transitions to the stage extremely well. Here, Hamric flies across the board during an outrageous electric piano solo. Burch pounds heavy, and charges forth the band like a general. The song contains some of Ellis’ best tone, control, and intertwined stringing. “The Last Song” is a beautiful ballad that burns with extended guitar solos that are loaded with emotion. “Pawnbroker” is what Ellis’ live show is all about. The entire band comes alive on this ignited rocker. The final number, “Double Eyed Whammy,” is worth the wait. On this Freddie King tune, Ellis and Company are torrid. The most represented previous CD is Storm Warning, which has been Ellis’ biggest seller. The remaining cuts were culled from three other Alligator releases and his two more recent Telarc albums. On those albums, Ellis left his blues/rock comfort zone for a more seasoned and refined sound. Iglauer and Ellis decided to return to a hard rocking approach. On Live – Highwayman, Tinsley Ellis’ blues-based rock is mean, tough, bold, loud, and excessive. It regularly crosses over into the hard rock arena. The Hell’s Angels will revel to this scorching biker blues. Like a freshly paved road, Ellis’ guitar effortlessly carries you on a rock and roll journey. Hold onto your seat and enjoy the ride! When it comes to blues/rock, and in particular the Southern style, this searing CD proves Ellis is at the top of the heap.

Chris BeardThe word prince means a non-reigning male member of a sovereign family. If you think of a prince, you’ll think of lavishness. Prince Of The Blues is a fitting moniker for Rochester, New York’s Chris Beard. He is the son of blues guitarist Joe Beard, and was raised on Motown, Stax and plenty of rock music. The prince picked up the guitar at age five, and by 15 was working steadily in Cameo. He freely admits, “My blues has the modern feel of soul, funk, and rock. I never stray away from the blues too much, it is always at the foundation.” His third CD, Live Wire (NorthernBlues), contains 73 minutes that is equal in live and studio cuts. Beard handles lead guitar, rhythm guitar, and vocals. Additionally, he contributes five originals, but the superior songs are covers by Chris Cain, Dennis Walker, Luther Allison, and Lucky Peterson. There appears to be intense energy present on the live recordings, but audio alone can’t capture it. Beard takes the stage on “Born To Play The Blues” with his screaming guitar. It becomes brazen and uncontrolled. He needs time to learn to control his power. “Tribute to Luther Allison – part 1” begins with a sizzling four-minute guitar solo where Beard is backed by his band. The solo pays homage to Allison and B.B. King. The consistency of this live song, and others, is ruined due to being broken into multiple parts. As if taken from a live radio broadcast, where the commercials have been edited out, the live tracks end abruptly. “Its Over – part 3” is a prime example. This “song” is simply a two-minute bass solo that disappears into oblivion. A high point exists on “Caught Up.” You won’t find finer contemporary blues than this. Instead of featuring Beard’s now all too common in-your-face guitar, the band is showcased. On this song, and a couple others, Alan Murphy’s keyboards are out of the ordinary. The studio recordings carry substance. The aggression and uncontrollable force from the live cuts is left behind. The result is the band performs like a unit. The songs, arrangements, vocals, and production are all top-quality in the studio. “Street Of Broken Dreams” is a deep soul/funk song with commendable horns. The dramatic “Never Felt No Blues” contains a sentiment we have all experienced whether it has been brought on by partners, jobs, or kids. “Lock My Dreams” is a modern soul classic. The best song, the Joe Louis Walker-style “Can’t Walk Away,” contains rhythm that oozes like oil. Essentially Live Wire is a tale of two tales. The live material lacks essence, and contains inadequate sound quality. The pulsating studio tracks leave you feeling Beard is stronger in the studio than on the stage. Beard is capable of better music than the material contained here.  
Another review of Beard's CD follows.

--- Tim Holek
Freelance Journalist/Photographer

The guitar sounds so over-the-top, a possible result of the still-flowing trickle-down effect of Stevie Ray, that the general public would probably like Chris Beard's Live Wire (NorthernBlues). It may represent today’s “middle-of-the-road” blues definition, say, between old-school Muddy and 21st Century in-your-face blues-rockers. Energy it has, and another thing working for Beard is his singing voice. Not trained or always right-on, just well-suited for the blues. Maybe like Johnny Copeland singing in a lower range. Released on a small Toronto label, it may take more time and experience for Chris to become better-known, but he has the musical influences and festival bookings already going. Son of Joe Beard of Memphis and Rochester, the younger player grew up playing with, and listening to, his dad and associates Buddy Guy and Matt Murphy. Now the relative newcomer pays homage to his own influences, like Dennis Walker and Chris Cain, by playing their compositions during the studio portion of the album. Mostly Beard originals comprise the live, festival-recorded, first half of the album. The disc begins in a rather amateur way, with the live recording of his backup band warming up. Over-processed sound is amalgamated with an imposing funk/snap electric bass which would be better suited for Kool and the Gang or Bootsie’s Rubber Band. A band member asks the audience for the 1,000th time if everybody’s feeling all right, then leader Beard is brought out with his lead guitar calisthenics, not much soul underneath all that flash. The player personnel varies though, among the tracks, so there are certainly redeeming moments. At one live point for example, he sings about breaking a guitar string. That kind of spontaneity makes the leader more human. There is a tribute to Luther Allison (actually written by Lucky Peterson), he mentions in the notes liking Motown, Stax, rock, funk, plus Jimi Hendrix, and these moods are represented. There are horns to punctuate, brass added in the studio. As for the CD sequencing, there are many pumped-up selections before he settles down to a comfortable delivery (that may be better than the reverse situation, depending on the setting of course). For my personal taste, I can’t take much of the hyperactive live tracks, but the studio selections fare rather well.

Jay GeilsYes, it’s the same Jay Geils as the rock/R&B-fused guitar of the J. Geils Band. He is not pretending to play jazz on Plays Jazz! (Stony Plain), or playing what he THINKS is jazz, or trying to be something he isn’t. Instead we hear a wonderful guitar solo style that admittedly isn’t the caliber of Barney Kessell, but kind of comes from that angle: a hollow-body electric sound, some chords and some single-note phrasing, flurries here and there that don’t necessarily call for clean execution. Then there is the STYLE of jazz he has chosen. It’s like we came partly out of Benny Goodman late ‘30s swing, but also into combo jamming of the ‘50s. The studio sound conspires with musicianship to really give the document quite the personality. It’s uplifting and bouncy. Nostalgic, yes, but also craftsmanship toward love of the precious. The guitarist’s evolution is really quite natural, because after the J. Geils Band success (when harmonica player Magic Dick and Geils went on to form “Bluestime,” a group playing Chicago post-war blues), Geils’ love for music he first encountered during his New Jersey childhood was required almost by accident. The rehearsing group stumbled onto some jazz chord changes and Jay realized he needed better chops so went to the woodshed to do more serious practicing. In various print articles, Geils explained his heretofore unknown involvement with jazz: “I first heard guitarist Charlie Christian from Goodman records when I was 10, thanks to my father. He took me to see Louis Armstrong and the All-Stars when I was 12, for which I am eternally grateful. I played trumpet and wanted to be Armstrong, but one thing led to another. Then there was the J. Geils Blues Band, which became a rock band, breaking up in 1984. Even before then I’d played with Buddy Guy, B.B. King, Muddy Waters and other blues men. Then, in the early ‘90s, I decided to take the next step and really get back into the Charlie Christian thing.” His sidemen here include well-known tenor saxophonist Scott Hamilton and lesser-known reedman Greg Piccolo of the group Roomful Of Blues. Others are numerous and more obscure but the rhythm section deserves high marks for a mature job. This is a delicate music that requires feeling, and the drummer is wonderfully caressing without dragging. There are several cuts using a Hammond B3 organ to lay down the bass line. Two other guitarists appear and also take solos so hang on to your hat trying to keep track. One of them also plays mandolin and a “console steel” guitar, kind of Hawaiian. It made me think for the first time in years of Alvino Rey of the ‘50s, who played a kind of “talking” guitar (really more pop than jazz in his time). The repertoire is all-classic, with varied works by people like Peggy Lee, Bill Doggett, Mel Powell, Johnny Hodges, Ellington, Clifford Brown, and Roland Kirk. To really sum up Jay Geils’ sound on this CD, I blindfold tested an unsuspecting layperson: “Is it Wes Montgomery?” This is another in a series of releases on the Canadian Stony Plain label which seems to be run by, and for, good-taste guitarists. Other releases in the series are New Guitar Summit (with Duke Robillard and Gerry Beaudoin) and Ronnie Earl Meets Duke Robillard. Sufficient distribution remains questionable, but internet availability at the label’s website is valuable. This is a music which will probably never be widely identified with the name Jay Geils due to his past success (he incidentally also restored high-performance foreign cars after his rock band split), but he is to be commended for following his gut and acting on his musical passion to share it with those of like-minded interest. It is hoped he can also enjoy some live performance work with this kind of thing.

---Tom Coulson
Radio broadcaster/musician
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Being a guitar teacher doesn’t necessarily mean spending all of ones’ time in the classroom or studio teaching others what it means to play guitar. Rich Fabec’s latest release, Talking to Shadows (Mercy Seat Records), lends solid backing to that truth. Yes, Fabec is currently a guitar instructor at a local community college in his hometown of Anna, Illinois, but he surely doesn’t rest his laurels there. Heading to the studio and laying down some tasty blues/rock was something Fabec had to do. Mission accomplished as he tears through 11 songs devoted to topics ranging from lost love to mental illness. Not only does Fabec play the heck out of his guitar, but he handles all bass and vocal parts as well with the only assistance from drummer Al E. Sis. I wouldn’t say that Fabec is the strongest blues vocalist I’ve ever heard. He does okay with this recording, but it might be something to consider on his next release in regards to bringing in an able singer so he can concentrate on his expert blues/rock guitar licks. Fabec’s guitar is truly his voice and fits into every style of blues/rock he can muster. This is evident on Talking to Shadows. Fabec wrote all material, produced and recorded this CD, allowing him to be independently creative without the sometimes-watchful eye of a record producer who doesn’t seem to understand one’s musical vision. Straight ahead blues shows up on “The Other 99,” a song explaining how some people never change how they treat others. Fabec tackles slide guitar, Delta style, on “Delta Blue” and delivers a strong showing. Fabec goes instrumental on “Freekathang displaying a solid funk/rock beat. To check out more sounds from Rich Fabec and info on purchasing this CD go to:

Phil BerkowitzThere is absolutely no doubt in any blues lovers mind that Louis Jordan’s brand of jump blues and boogie in the 30’s, 40’s and early 50’s created a solid foundation for the future sounds and styles of blues which ultimately led to rock and roll. It’s very safe to say that Jordan’s music influenced great artists like Chuck Berry, Bill Haley and B.B. King. In fact, a few years ago Mr. King released a tribute CD to Jordan. Not to be outdone, harp player Phil Berkowitz, in wanting to pay tribute to his major influence, has understandably picked Jordan. Any harp player can easily relate to the connections between the unmistakable notes one can produce with a mouth harp in relation to those same notes one can register with a saxophone, Jordan’s instrument of choice. On Berkowitz’s latest release, Phil Berkowitz Plays Louis’s Blues… The Music of Louis Jordan (Dirty Cat Records), he beautifully captures Jordan’s signature style by altering his style of harp playing to capture the soul and feel for each tune. This is not an easy task. Along with the super ability to stamp each tune with his unique brand of playing, Berkowitz has not only paid a masterful tribute to Jordan but in the process created a collection of songs worth listening to on their own. A native of New Jersey, Berkowitz transplanted to northern California in the late ’80s to attend college, eventually giving into his passion to play the blues and assembling a crack group of musicians in the Bay area to form the High Rollers. They released their first CD, The High Rollers,  in 1999, and High Time, in 2001 (reviewed for Blues Bytes in February 2002 by this reviewer). A true school of learning for Berkowitz where he and the band worked every club and honky-tonk up and down the coast delivering their take on various styles of the blues, including ’50s New Orleans R&B, Chicago and of course West Coast Jump. The next logical step for Berkowitz was to record a tribute to Jordan, making the wise choice of bringing on board producer Danny Caron, who he had worked with during the High Roller days. Caron also supplies slick guitar work throughout. Berkowitz solicited the help of another Bay area favorite, the band Stompy Jones, to fill in the rest of the musical duties, featuring Scott Lawrence on the black and whites, “Little David” Rose on the bass and Bowen Brown lending drums expertise along with percussion chores. This is one fantastic sounding band enhanced with crystal clear production. All of Jordan’s classic songs get solid renderings, like “Let the Good Times Roll,” “Caldonia,” “Choo Choo Ch’Boggie” and “Saturday Night Fish Fry,” but it’s the lesser-known tunes dusted off and presented in shining glory that sound delightful to this reviewer. Check out the lead-off gem, “Salt Pork, West Virginia,” with an infectious jump boogie flavor and train conductor-like hollering from Berkowitz. In “A Dollar Down” we get introduced to the pitfalls of being poor, wrapped up in a bouncing rhythm. Slowing down doesn’t mean boring at all as we are treated to a bluesy and soulful journey on “I’m Gonna Move to the Outskirts of Town,” where changing your address will hopefully keep the onlookers away from eyeing your loved one. Berkowitz lays down such passion in his vocals and during his harp solo on this song in which he makes a clear case that this is one talent to reckon with. Caron adds a guitar solo so tastefully helping to create a perfect song. Berkowitz also adds ammunition to an already powerful release with the rarely heard tune, “Do You Call That A Buddy?” Transforming his harp into another source of sound by using his minor-tuned diatonic, Berkowitz delights our senses with this style of playing coupled with Caron’s acoustic support. This CD rocks all the necessary boogie elements in my mind and heart, taking me along for such a joyful ride that I must heap accolades to my driver in song, Phil Berkowitz and his extremely capable band of musicians, for filling my ears with Phil Berkowitz plays Louis’ Blues… The Music of Louis Jordan. Get this CD and check out the artist at: Good listening to you.

--- Bruce Coen


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