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June 1999

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Tail Dragger

Johnnie Bassett

Arthur Williams

Al Garrett

Roy Roberts

Chris Smither

Mighty Sam McClain

Bill Morrissey




What's New

Tail Dragger - American PeopleChicago blues singer Tail Dragger is one of several Windy City blues cats still carrying on the memory and tradition of the late, great Howlin' Wolf. He's got the Wolf growl down pat, and this new album, American People (Delmark) is also highlighted by the brilliant harmonica accompaniment of Billy Branch. The title cut is a very supportive tribute to a fellow native Arkansan, President Clinton --- "...President Roosevelt had a girlfriend, and you know President Kennedy had two, when I was young man I had me a lot of women too..." "My Woman Is Gone" is more in the Howlin' Wolf vein, with Johnny B. Moore contributing very good Hubert Sumlin-style guitar. Branch's harp work is featured on the Sonny Boy Williamson standard "Don't Start Me Talkin'." Great Chicago blues from a truly unique singer.

More good solid Chicago blues comes our way this month from journeyman bassist Aron Burton on Good Blues To You (Delmark). This is not by any means an essential album, but a nice collection of basic stuff, most of it originals from Burton or his guitar-playing brother Larry. The title song is a catchy, "feelgood" blues, with good harmonica from Billy Branch. "Too Late To Apologize" is very reminiscent of Howlin' Wolf's "Killing Floor." The slow blues "The Woman I Met Out In The Rain" features good piano work from Allen Batts.

Detroit blues guitarist Johnnie Bassett is staging a nice "late career" comeback, having been recorded more often in the last few years than through the rest of his 50-year music career. Party My Blues Away (Cannonball) is a real nice collection of 11 songs, all in Bassett's unique jazzy country blues style. Most of the cuts are band originals, beginning with the funky beat of "Big Boss Woman." Bassett's band, The Blues Insurgents, includes a strong horn section, and they're used to good effect on this number. The best selection here is the B.B.-style "Money Back Guarantee." Bassett's downhome roots show on the rawer "Call Your Mama's Name." But he's also adept at a slow, late night blues like "Wonderin' Blues." Johnnie Bassett is a real blues treasure, and you owe it to yourself to check out this man's music.

awillia1.jpg (30386 bytes)If you like Jimmy Reed-style harmonica and vocals, then be sure to look hard for Harpin' On It (Fedora) from St. Louis blues veteran Arthur Williams. Although he's recorded as a sideman on recordings by Frank Frost, Big Bad Smitty, and others, I believe that this is Williams' first album as a bandleader. He does a nice, slow version of Mercy Dee's "One Room Country Shack," then diversifies with the rhumba beat of "Chitlins & Hot Sauce." Williams' best harp work can be heard on the shuffle "Mother-In-Law Blues."

Fedora Records keeps finding these guys who should have been recorded long ago. The latest is California guitarist Al Garrett, with a fine album entitled Out Of Bad Luck. While Garrett originally hails from Memphis, he is stylistically reminiscent of Chicago's Magic Sam. In fact, the title cut is a Magic Sam original. "Blues For Big Town" is a good, bouncy tune, first done by one of Garrett's former employers, Roy Brown. I also liked his cover of "You Give Me Nothing But The Blues," with a rawer, sparser sound than the original. Garrett puts a lot of feeling and emotion into his music, and that goes a long way with me.

I may be bucking the trend here, but I'm going to give a real mediocre review of Robert Cray's latest paean to Memphis soul, Take Your Shoes Off (Ryko). The concept is great --- go into a Memphis studio with the Memphis Horns, and try to sound just like Al Green. Ah, but there's the problem. It seems like Cray tried a little too hard to sound like Green. With all due respect, very few singers in the history of mankind can sing like Reverend Al. By trying too hard to sound like someone else, Cray takes the richness out of his own voice, instead sounding tired and forced. This is especially evident on "Let Me Know," on which Cray sounds especially bored. The best cuts are the ones on which Cray just lets loose and sings like on all of his previous albums. Be sure to his version of Mack Rice's "24-7 Man" and his own "Pardon." Everything else seems to work on this CD. If he just hadn't tried so hard to be like Al.

If you're keeping a list of blues musicians deserving of more acclaim, then you may want to add the name Roy Roberts. The North Carolina guitarist/singer has a thoroughly enjoyable new CD entitled Deeper Shade Of Blue (King Snake). Roberts plays B.B.-style blues guitar, and is a very nice soulful vocalist. "Mr. D.J." is an uptempo blues shuffle, on which Roberts begs the local disc jockey for airplay. (Ironically, I hosted a blues radio show in Roberts' current hometown of Greensboro, N.C. for seven years, and would have been glad to play his music on my show). "I'll Chase Your Blues Away" is an excellent slow blues, featuring Roberts' strongest guitar work. Deeper Shade Of Blue is highlighted by the strong horn section used on this session, most notably Rusty Smith's fluegel horn solo on "Learning To Love You Again." Definitely worth checking out!

Chris Smither has always been one of my favorite acoustic guitarists and songwriters. Not all of his music falls into a straight blues vein, but it's always top-quality stuff. That's true of his latest, Drive You Home Again (HighTone), which finds him in more of a band setting on most of the tunes. Smither shows his creativity on the interesting composition "No Love Today," on which he sings about the local fruit and vegetable man who can sell you okra and bananas, but can't deliver love to you..."I got okra, enough to choke you, beans of every kind, If hungry is what's eatin' you, I'll sell you peace of mind, But this ain't what you came to hear me say, and I hate to disappoint you, I got no love today..." I could easily imagine Leo Kottke doing this song, too. "Rattlesnake Preacher," an Eric von Schmidt original, features good gospel-style piano by Joel Guzman. "Tell Me Why You Love Me" is a spirited Tex-Mex number, again with Guzman soloing this time on accordion. Drive You Home Again is a fun album, and a nice addition to the Chris Smither discography.

Roy Carrier With so many zydeco CDs on the market today, one has to wonder whether there's room for an independent label release by a veteran like Roy Carrier. I hope so, since Twist & Shout (Right on Rhythm) is a great album of good, basic zydeco, a mixture of live and studio recordings. This disc has the flow of a "live" performance from any given Saturday night in Louisiana, starting out with the uptempo groovin' "Have Some Fun, at the Offshore Lounge" (which is the name of the club in Lawtell, La. owned and operated by Carrier). I also liked the catchy zydeco shuffle of "Some Real Zydeco." One of the few covers is a very nice traditional version of Clifton Chenier's "Josephine Par Se Ma Femme."

Young New Orleans piano player Davell Crawford has been all over the map in his brief recording career. His first album for Rounder consisted of New Orleans R&B and gospel, and marked a fine debut for the grandson of legend Sugar Boy Crawford. He then ventured into a jazzier sound on his second disc, primarily playing the Hammond B-3. Now, on Love Like Yours And Mine (Rounder), Crawford records a set of smooth ballads and love songs. Among the songs included here are standards like "Fly Me To The Moon," "Detour Ahead," and John Lennon's "Let It Be." Your interest in this CD will depend on whether romantic ballads are your thing. If so, this is a beautifully done album. If not, then bypass this one and look for Crawford's spirited first CD, Let Them Talk.

One of the more interesting CDs to come my way lately is from Memphis alterna-blues band The Delta Queens, with the very intriguing (Mama's Got A) Monkey Lamp (Dangerous Monkey). Warning --- blues purists should stay away! This is high-powered, slide-fueled frenetic blues, with raspy, sometimes histrionic vocals. The album's worth checking out just for the original tune "Jackson," which contains a good message for all of us, albeit delivered in perhaps a non-P.C. fashion. Just check out these lyrics "...but that book (the Bible) is not just for white people with golf clubs, it's for everybody. In fact, cultural evidence in the Bible itself suggests that Jesus probably looked a lot more like Rick James than Ronald Reagan, and we think Slick Rick would want you to love all the people..." Whew, that's some heavy stuff! "House Shoe Boogie" is another wild one, with crazy guitar from Carp Hester. Remember, I said that this disc is not for blues purists. Oh yeah, did I remember to mention that these guys dress in drag ... gray wigs, quilted housecoats, rhinestone-studded cats-eye glasses? If this all intrigues you, then you should certainly check out The Delta Queens. While the music's pretty far out there, it's certainly an interesting ride.

While we're on the subject of unique bands, there are a bunch of guys from New Jersey who call themselves Better Off Dead. They play jump-style blues, with the focus being on risqué lyrics. If you're not easily offended by the subject matter covered here, then their self-titled release on Garageland Records is worth searching out, because it's fun stuff. I liked the original tune, from guitarist and vocalist V.D. King, "Liquor In The Front."

The latest young guitar prodigy to hit the scene is Austin's Jake Andrews, with his new release Time To Burn (Jericho) produced by John Porter. Andrews shows some potential on his debut release, fronting a high-energy power trio playing a mixture of blues and rock. There's a lot of diversity, as Andrews plays a jazzier style of guitar on the album's best cut, the midtempo shuffle "Lover To Cry." Doug Sahm guests on piano on the nice swamp ballad "I'm Glad For Your Sake (But Sorry For Mine)." Andrews also has a pleasant singing voice, most evident on the funky number "I Don't Wanna Go Home." Keep your eye on this kid's career ... he's got potential.

Mighty Sam McClain is truly a survivor, so Soul Survivor is an appropriate title for this "best of" compilation from his four Audioquest albums released from '93 to '98. McClain has never gotten the recognition he deserves, but he's still out there plugging away. McClain really bares his soul on the slow number "Hanging On The Cross," which features nice piano from Bruce Katz ... McClain claims to be "hanging on the cross between heaven and the blues." He also does a breathtaking cover of an Al Green gospel song "Lord Will Make A Way." "When The Hurt Is Over (Maybe Love Will Flow)" is a killer slow, swampy blues that is one of the highlights of this collection. If you're not familiar with the fantastic vocal work of Mighty Sam McClain, then Soul Survivor is a good place to start.

--- Bill Mitchell

Live At The Pheasant (Mitawan) is Bob Bingham’s third solo release and is an excellent addition. Bingham plays a good variety of acoustic blues, and is backed by Honeyboy Hickling playing harp on seven of the 14 tracks. These recordings were recorded at the Pheasant Inn in Sheffield, England in March 1998. As he states in his liner notes, "playing solo allows him to wander through the different musical styles of traditional blues," and he does a great job of it. Of the 14 songs on this CD there is one original, and the rest read like a "who’s who" of traditional blues. As an indication of Bingham’s versatile musical ability, he has chosen a wide variety of traditional blues artists to cover. Covering so many different styles in a live setting is an accomplishment in itself. And then to have them all CD quality is outstanding. There are covers from Memphis Minnie, Lightnin' Hopkins, Memphis Slim, Robert Johnson, Leroy Carr, Jelly Roll Morton, Eddie Taylor, Blind Willie McTell, Mance Lipscomb, Tommy Johnson, and Big Joe Williams. The Jelly Roll Morton song, "Dr. Jazz," is a piano-like ragtime number, and likely one of the most difficult. "Goin' To Louisiana" is a tour de force in 12 string blues. Live blues...that's the way blues should be. As in most live recordings, there are a few audience comments and applause at the end of the tracks. Bingham recommends in his liner notes to the listener to seek out the original recordings of these artists, and I highly recommend that they also seek out this CD.

At first glance I wondered why anyone would want to produce a CD of tunes that cover a single artist. To do so invites a more critical comparison to the original. In the liner notes, Bill Morrissey admits that his Songs Of Mississippi John Hurt (Philo) is not an effort in note for note duplication since John Hurt had already done that. John Hurt’s style is evident in Morrissey’s music and his approach to each selection. Instead of a single acoustic guitar, as was John Hurt’s style, Bill Morrissey incorporates many other instruments with the grace to integrate them smoothly together. "Avalon Blues" was the signature song that lead blues researchers to "rediscover" Mississippi John Hurt in the folk and country blues revival of the late fifties and early sixties. In his interpretation of "Avalon Blues," Morrissey incorporates a piano and saxophone in a soulful, laid back style of which I think John Hurt would approve. "Big Leg Blues" sounds a bit more sassy, with piano, sax, trumpet, drums and acoustic bass. The production quality is very good on this CD, and the mix is smooth and listens easily. The recordings of Mississippi John Hurt are highly recommended to anyone with an interest in acoustic folk blues. Bill Morrissey’s CD fits in that same category.

--- Mike Simpson

10,000 Miles (Stumble) is the second release by Memo Gonzalez & The Bluescasters. The CD is an excellent 65 minute example of tough Dallas blues, but there is one problem --- Stumble does not have a U.S. distributor. Memo Gonzalez is a native of Dallas who moved to Germany in 1997 and has performed with the Bluescasters since then. Gonzalez plays harmonica and sings, and he does both very well. He wrote or co-wrote 11 of the 14 songs, and for the most part, these songs will make you shake your butt. The star of the disk is guitarist Kai Strauss. His solos are excellent, and he burns on the slow "Greyhound." He has writing credit on three songs, including the cool Buddy Holly-ish "Shake It, Baby," on which he gives a strong vocal performance. He wrote the closing instrumental "Wiggle Toes," and it gives you the feeling their set just ended. Providing the danceable beats are Ralf Nackowitsch playing drums and Erkan Ozdemir playing drums.

--- Tony Nowicki

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