Mighty Sam McClain has persevered the hard calluses of life to become a soul music legend. In the 60s, he recorded several singles but his career never really took off. Singing since age five, his influences from the Gospel Church choir are still evident. On his second Telarc release, Sweet Dreams, McClain delivers a powerful testament to his enduring faith --- in himself, his music and in God. Backed by his regular powerhouse band and the Mighty Horns (4 piece brass section), Sam unveils 13 songs that showcase his powerful vocals and uplifting lyrics. For 55 wonderful minutes, you will be swept away in a relaxing trance. The soul therapy begins with the big band turbo-charged "Here I Come Again". It features the shuffling drumming of Jim Arnold and driving bass of Tim Ingles. On "Standing In The Wings," the incredible work of Bruce Katz (keys) and the horn section combine to follow Sam's every vocal move. Sam doesn't hesitate to let the Mighty Horns loose and blow on this blues/soul/R&B crossover tune. "Learn How To Love You Again" sounds too familiar to be original. It dates back to Sam's time spent in Nashville. Thus, it's a country song but without the twang. You can't help joining in on the chorus. Thanks to the wah-wah-ish guitar of Kevin Belz and the rich, heavy B-3 of Barry Seelen, "Fool For The Blues" is a grooving funk. "Living In My Dreams" is a joyous autobiographical song where Sam's vocal enthusiasm is equaled by Katz on B-3. Here, Sam shares how thrilled he is with life. Later, he puts a twist on a well known respected song and delivers the lyrics in a challenging and soul-searching way. The most bluesy tune is a cover of Christian artist Glen Kaiser's "Where Would I Be". On it, Sam inspires Belz to rein supreme by demanding him to 'squeeze it son'. Belz becomes so inspired he keeps letting it rip through the next track. The music is a mix of downhome blues and smooth soul. Sam's voice is strong and confident, allowing him to deliver the words with plenty of passion. When he sings a lyric, you know he means it. As an example listen to "I Love Hard." There is a calmness and peacefulness in his music. It is visually represented by the picture of Sam on the back cover. Liner note writer Bill Wasserzieher sums things up simply --- "Mighty Sam's living his dreams and they are sweet."
-- Tim Holek
When it comes to sheer star power, there is absolutely no way you can beat John Mayall's latest, Along for the Ride (Eagle Records). You want big names? How about Jonny Lang, Shannon Curfman, Jeff Healey, Gary Moore and Billy F. Gibbons (of ZZ Top) --- they're all playing on here. You want people with bigger blues (and lesser blues-rock) credentials? Well, you have ex-Stax mainstay Steve Cropper, ex-Double Trouble keyboardist Reese Wynans and Chicago blues legend Otis Rush appearing as well. (Granted, Cropper only plays rhythm guitar on one track, and Rush sings a duet on his classic "So Many Roads," but plays absolutely no guitar.) You have a thing for old British blues? You can have three quarters of the legendary line-up of 60's Fleetwood Mac --- Peter Green, Mick Fleetwood and John McVie. All three were also members of Mayall's Bluesbreakers in the 60's. There are others that appear on this CD, namely ex-Rolling Stones Mick Taylor and saxophonist Dick Heckstall-Smith. Oh, and I almost forgot ex-teen sensation, nowadays better known as Clapton's rhythm guitar player, Andy Fairweather Low. Still not impressed with all the guests? How about, back from the dead, Steve Miller, or appearing out of left field, cult-ish singer-songwriter Chris Rea? You want more soul? You've got Billy Preston here. You want jazz? The venerable Red Holloway is guesting as well, and damn near stealing the show, too! (Can you believe they credited this album to John Mayall & Friends?) Now, I know what you are saying, those big names making cameo appearances usually detract from rather than add to the overall quality of the CD. The thing is, in this case, they don't. Sure, the cover of "So Many Roads" doesn't even come close to the original, and Rush sounds a bit sleepy. But the equally well-known Louis Jordan chestnut "Early in the Morning" is great fun in a skiffle kind of way, more so than B.B. King's recent version (on his Let the Good Times Roll album), although there is no way Mayall can out-sing B.B. (But if you're thinking of buying this CD, you are probably already used to Mayall's voice). In fact, in spite of all these guests, this CD is actually much better than Mayall's series of albums for the Silvertone label during the 90's. As an added bonus, "Yo Yo Man", with the Green-Fleetwood-McVie lineup augmented by Steve Miller and amazing percussionist Lenny Castro, will remind you that Fleetwood Mac was an awesome band before we started to hear Rumors.
Is One Step Closer, Kenny
Neal's latest album for Telarc, any indication of where he wants to bring his music? Or is it simply a bizarre one-off effort where he decided to show us every style he could sing? Whatever the answer, the news is not good for blues fans. It might prove beneficial, who's to say, for Neal's
career from a strict commercial point of view, as this latest disk can safely be categorized as a pop record. Unfortunately, it is a pretty white-bread type of a pop record, with back-to-back pedestrian ballads that effectively made me itch to change the CD in my player. The first of these, "Walk out in the Rain", is a Bob Dylan song that comes off as something Joe Cocker would
do. "One Step Closer to the Blues" is a misnomer, as it is a slow ballad featuring very little bluesy guitar.
It does, however, feature a lot of piano and organ, as do all tracks on the
CD. Strangely, no keyboard player is listed in the credits. Since Neal is a competent piano player, we can make an educated guest that he does handle keyboard duties himself. He is however duly credited as playing guitar and
harmonica. Other decidedly non-blues moments include two Celtic pop cuts, John Hiatt's "Lovers Will" and Nick Lowe's "High on a
Hilltop," and two Cajun-pop arrangements of songs penned by Colin Linden (whose own CD is reviewed elsewhere in this issue), the first of which,
"Remedy," is saved from the merely OK by the greatest baritone sax riff heard in this century. In fact, after the opening track ("No More One More
Chance," a rare chance to hear Neal's harmonica work), the next blues happens at track
none, a cover of Sonny Landreth's "Congo Square" with subtle slide playing from Neal. The only two songs penned by Neal
are very fine soulful blues, tucked at the very end of the disk. Too bad
--- by then, I wasn't listening anymore. There is one redeeming quality to this CD that even jaded critics like me must
recognize --- the sound is, like on every Telarc release, absolutely gorgeous.
The most eclectic CD of the indie lot is, by far, Ray Montana's debut after 30 years as a professional guitarist, something called
Hip October (Mojo Twang Records, available at www.raymontana.com). I have few details concerning Mr. Montana's career, but he must have been able to enjoy an artistically enriching career with the various opportunities to play in many different styles that are the lot of the studio musician's life. At least, this is what I imagine, based on the wild array of musical genres touched upon here. There's a smooth up-tempo Latin jazz instrumental with a flute accompaniment, there's a heavy 70's style blues-rock number, there are covers of songs originally done by Procol Harum (yes, "A Whiter Shade of Pale"), Steve Miller (a very entertaining "Ying Yang" with punchy horns) and Sonny Boy Williamson II ("Somebody Help
Me," with tenor sax replacing the usual harmonica). Hey, there's even a
nine-minute instrumental "Beatles' Medley," where Mike Clark's tenor sax is the lead voice on the chorus of "Lucy in the Sky with
Diamonds," set to a reggae beat! That one, I must say, is just plain weird. But aside from this faux pas, Montana has got to be admired for sheer breadth of vision and chameleon-like adaptability. Whether his guitar swings delicately, as on his jazz or Latin instrumentals (his wonderful "Soulmates" recalls Jimmy Smith's long-standing guitarist, Phil Upchurch), or whether he attacks it like a rock axeman or caresses it like a country-rock slide guitar specialist, he never overdoes it and always seems to be perfectly at home. The same cannot be said about Montana's singing voice, but it is serviceable and he has learned to stay within his limits. But with his stellar playing and strong musicians on hand to help out (including bassist Greg
Carroll) and excellent sound, Ray Montana can say, "Mission accomplished."
Because Kelly Joe Phelps plays slide like a demon and sings in a raspy, sometimes strangled voice, and because he's a huge fan and excellent interpreter of the Skip James canon, he's generally considered a blues artist. Then again, because he makes up songs that fall outside of any pre-set form and that certainly don't adhere to the 12-bar AAB format, and because his lyrics invoke a sort of stream-of-consciousness epic storytelling, he's just as adequately described as a modern folk artist. His latest album for Rykodisc, Sky Like a Broken Clock, is a big departure for him. After three solo records (save for one song on his excellent third disk, Shine Eyed Mister Zen --- reviewed here in the August 1999 issue --- on which he was accompanied by a harmonica player), here he goes for a band sound, enlisting bassist Larry Taylor (better known to blues fans as "The Mole" in Canned Heat, but also a long-time partner of Tom Waits) and drummer Billy Conway (previously in the band Morphine). Cut live in the studio with no previous preparation, with minimal overdubs (spooky organ, majestic cello), the record is a fascinating microcosm of ordinary losers who can't break free of their solitude or their insanity, hypnotic and quite depressing. It is highly recommended. It also has less to do with the blues then any of his previous CDs, unless you're willing to consider the subject matter as a radical update of the traditional down-on-their-luck characters of the classic form.
--- Benoît Brière
With an angelic voice that belies his physical stature, Aaron Neville has enjoyed an expanded fan base for the last ten years (due largely to his late
80s duets with Linda Ronstadt), even though he has been making wonderful music for over
40 of his 60 years. As a solo artist and with his brothers, Neville has been wowing audiences for years in New Orleans both as a secular artist and singing his beloved gospel songs. His appearances at the Gospel Tent at JazzFest in N.O. are always a highlight
(if you go to JazzFest, do not leave before visiting the Gospel Tent, where some of the finest singers you've never heard of perform every year). Late last year, Neville released his first full-length gospel disc,
Devotion (EMD/Chordant Records). The disc is a mixture of traditional spirituals, modern pop songs of a spiritual nature, and a few Neville-penned originals. The opening track, "Mary Don't You
Weep," done in a quartet setting (as are "Banks of the River Jordan" and "Were You There"), is one of the standout tracks. Two other standouts are Neville's takes on "Bridge Over Troubled Water" and "Morning Has
Broken." The only real missteps occur with "Jesus Is a Friend of
Mine," with it's spoken-word testimony that is an uncomfortable fit, and the duet with Rachel Lampa, "There is Still a
Dream," which veers toward the easy listening vein. The standout track, to me, was Neville's beautiful reading of "Jesus Loves Me" (even though I do enjoy my daughter's version more). Throughout the disc, the message and Neville's pure, soulful vocals are the constants. If you've ever seen Neville perform live, it's obvious that his faith in God is strong. It's also obvious that this CD has been in him for a long time trying to get out. Fortunately for listeners, it has finally seen the light of day. Let's hope it's not his last effort toward gospel.
Wrong Time, Wrong Place
(Bad Man) from Marcello & The Machine is a curious CD, apparently recorded in Italy, although there isn't a great deal of
information on the sleeve.
The 13 tracks are all solid rocking blues, and there are some good musicians tucked away in here.
Again, because of the lack of sleeve notes I am having to guess that most of these tracks were written by the band.
However, the CD is let down by the recording quality, especially on the vocals,
which come across as being almost distorted. Maybe it's just the copy that I was
sent, but if not then a bit of re-mastering is needed to rescue what could be a
good blues album.
When Mem Shannon burst upon the scene in 1995 with Cab Drivers Blues, he was hailed as one of the most promising and prolific songwriters to grace the blues scene in a decade or two. Well, this talented gentleman has lived up to that promise with every successive release, including his fourth Memphis In The Morning (Shanachie). Critics and fans of his music keep anticipating (some hoping) for him to repeat the formula of his first album which he has yet to do, instead continuously growing with his music and avoiding any type of stylistic typecasting that the music industry might bestow upon him. Memphis In The Morning marks his first recording done away from his home turf of New Orleans, recorded at the prestigious Ardent Studios in Memphis and co-produced by Dennis Walker and Shannon himself. This album undoubtedly is flavored with Memphis soul in addition to Mem's unique gumbo of New Orleans-styled blues that infuses elements of funk, jazz and R&B into both his squeaky clean guitar playing and mellow baritone vocals that tend to remind me of Brook Benton. Always the storyteller, Shannon offers forth 11 original tales drawn from life experiences with which anyone from any walk of life can identify. Opening this very worthwhile album is a power blast of a number, "Drowning On My Feet," that finds the singer up to his neck in life's woes. This number is augmented by the prestigious brass of Wayne Jackson and Andrew Love, known more commonly as The Memphis Horns, who also grace four other numbers including a splendid cover of B.B. Kings "Why I Sing The Blues," the only non-original of the 12 tunes. The humorous "S.U.V." will appeal to anyone who has cursed those road hogs for one reason or another. On the funkier side of things, "Invisible Man" spotlights some very sweet guitar soloing, while "Shake Up The Floor" and the album's closer "Doing The Best I Can" are both prime dance material sure to get your blood pumping. When you listen to a Mem Shannon album, you're sure to encounter a ballad or two. This one is no different from the rest with the very touching but somewhat somber story of a boy and his grandfather, entitled "Tired Arms," that may tug a heartstring or two. "You Belong To Him" and "Unconditional Love" are a pair of stories sharing the same theme of heartaches and dreams laid down over sparkling arrangements. The liner notes to this shining work are penned by Mem himself, who readily admits that his brand of blues are unlike most that people are use to hearing. But if you pay close attention you will hear a story which has always really been the main purpose of a blues song. Let it suffice to say that Mem Shannon is the best storyteller that money can buy in the business of the blues today.
Chicago is home to many myths and legends of the blues world. Like many big cities, a great deal of its residents are originally from elsewhere, especially in the vast realm of the blues community. One of Chicago's true native sons that tends to get overlooked in the states, but is acclaimed throughout Europe, is the multi-talented Studebaker John and The Hawks. Howl With The Wolf is his eighth release, his first for Evidence Records, and what a beauty it is. One of the things that I have always found admirable about this artist is his tendency to shy away from doing covers, instead choosing to stand on his own merits as a songwriter by comprising his albums of all originals. A triple threat on guitar, harp and vocals, but originally a harp player, John cites Brewer Phillips, Hound Dog Taylor and J.B. Hutto as major influences in his evolution into one of the nastiest slide players out there today. Howl With The Wolf is 12 tracks of high energy Chicago blues with a hard edge. The opening number, "Burned By Love," just plain assaults your senses, with the pounding rhythm section of bassist Felton Crews and drummer Earl Howell driving the thunderous beat overlayed with John's searing slide accompanying the age old blues story of the tune's title. A zippy little tune entitled "Juke Joint Jump" and the smoldering instrumental "Harpology" and "Don't You Take It" has Studebaker John ripping through some deliciously slick harp licks that would have made his idols Big and Little Walter quite proud. The title track which is also the closing number is an all-out Chicago stomp tempered with a certain amount of gritty street toughness that is over way too soon. A thoroughly wicked shuffling number entitled "Meant To Be" features some of Studebaker John's blisteringly hot soloing that has earned him the label of being an "over-the top" guitarist. This effort by Studebaker John and The Hawks is one you don't want to miss because of its sheer raw energy and in your face delivery. Don't be surprised if you find yourself hitting the repeat button on your player more often than you have in the past with this sizzling collection.
Robben Ford's Anthology --- The Early Years (Avenue Jazz/Rhino Records) is a double-disc set collecting 19 cuts from several LPs that originally appeared during the period 1972-76 when this young guitar hero first struck out on his own at a mere age of 21. Ford had already put in a lengthy apprenticeship, including stints with his own family band and with harpist/vocalist Charlie Musselwhite. This was a time of transition for Ford, who was beginning to move away from the strictly blues focus of his first recordings, towards an interest in fusion and other jazz forms. At the same time, he and his band teamed with veteran jazz-blues vocalist Jimmy Witherspoon, with whom he recorded two albums during the mid-70s. Many fans may not realize that Ford is a true "triple threat." He not only plays incredible guitar in just about any style of jazz or blues you can imagine, but he's also a convincing blues vocalist and a serious jazz tenor saxist who can even play in a Coltrane-like manner if the spirit so moves him. All of these talents are displayed to great effect within the grooves here (including a couple of his collaborations with Witherspoon, the classics "Goin' Down Slow" and "S.K. Blues," both recorded live). Although Ford went on to tour and record with some of the biggest jazz and pop stars of our time (Miles Davis, Joni Mitchell, George Harrison, and the Yellowjackets), to his credit he has never abandoned his love for the blues, and has returned to that idiom repeatedly since these recordings were first released --- and they still sound great today!
Chitlin' Circuit Soul! - The Best of Today's Southern Blues (Rhino) is a 16-cut compilation of contemporary Southern soul-blues artists of the Stax-Volt/Malaco school. The performers include the late Johnnie Taylor ("Cheaper To Keep Her"), Little Milton ("Walkin' The Back Streets and Crying"), Tyrone Davis ("Turning Point"), and Shirley Brown ("Woman To Woman"). Indeed, most of the artists profiled here would probably be categorized as "soul" rather than "blues," and I believe that these recordings all date form the 70s and 80s (when synthesizers and disco beats began to make their presence felt). But even the most purist of blues fans will find it hard not to enjoy such salacious gems as "Strokin'" by Clarence Carter and "Sue" by Bobby Rush. Although Taylor and Z.Z. Hill have passed on to blues-soul heaven, most of these artists are still live, well, and active on the "chitlin' circuit." This disc serves as an excellent introduction to their music, which keeps the blues tradition alive in the region and community which gave it birth.
--- Lee Poole
I missed out on the whole Napster thing, just only recently acquiring a new computer with a CD writer and discovering the joys of MP3 files. One of the coupons included with the PC was for 25 free downloads from www.emusic.com. I was pleased to find available a new release from one of my favorite contemporary blues bands, New York City's Michael Hill's Blues Mob. As far as I can determine, Larger Than Life is available only by download from emusic or from www.netbeat.com. The whole process was fairly simple and, before I knew it, I had everything downloaded and burned to a blank CD. Isn't technology wonderful? Larger Than Life is just as good as Hill's previous three albums for Alligator Records, jumping seamlessly between songs about serious issues and just plain old good-time blues numbers. The disc starts out with dazzling rockin' guitar work from Hill on "Partner In Crime." As a songwriter, Hill is at his best when dealing with controversial topics; on "Monticello Nights," he goes back more than 200 years to address the illicit love affair between Thomas Jefferson and his 14-year-old slave, Sally Hemmings. This is the kind of stuff that maintains my admiration for Hill, who just never ceases to surprise me with the topics he tackles. He then jumps to a joyful love song, "Undercover," before getting serious again with the title cut, discussing situations in which money seems larger than life. Hill changes style completely on "Blessings," a simpler tune with a Caribbean beat, rhythmic drumming and effective background vocalists. "Haunted" is a cool, funky number that starts out with à capella vocals, followed by a nice bass line then some intricate guitar riffs. "Millie Jackson Love" is a creative number, a shuffling love song on which he equates the love from his woman to that inspired by Ms. Jackson's music. Larger Than Life ends with a nice acoustic guitar and harmonica duet, "Bundle Of Joy," about a woman facing her ticking biological clock. Michael Hill fans will want to find this CD ... maybe this will inspire all of you to upgrade your computer as well as your internet connection.
Just over a year ago I raved about a new group out of the Southeast, lead by young guitarist Sean Costello (see February 2000 Blues Bytes). Costello and his buddies are back with their second release for Landslide Records, Moanin' For Molasses. There's absolutely no sign of a sophomore slump from Costello with this latest CD, as he and his band mates continue to evolve and improve. Costello's still a hot guitarist, and his vocals are taking on a grittier timbre. The album starts with a hot Freddy King-style instrumental, "Moanin' For Molasses," with fine jazzy piano from Matt Wauchope. While Costello covers a lot of musical styles with his music, the West Side Chicago sound is most prevalent. The funky Bloomfield / Gravenites composition "You're Killing My Love" and the gritty "No Lie" are the best examples here. My favorite song, the original "You're A Part Of Me," is a real conglomeration of styles, with a strong gospel piano intro followed by a mix of Louisiana swamp and country gospel. Costello's best vocal work is on the New Orleans-sounding "Miles Away," on which his voice has a nice earthiness to it. The guest horn section also gives this number a good "second line" feel. Costello ably handles the James Brown number "I Want You So Bad"; while this slow, soulful ballad stretches the capabilities of his voice somewhat, it still works. Costello's best guitar work is heard on the Otis Rush number, "It Takes Time." Harp fans will enjoy the instrumental workout, "The Plumber," featuring Paul Linden. Just like the Michael Hill album reviewed above, this one closes with an acoustic number, J.B. Lenoir's "Good Advice." I stick with what I said about Sean Costello last year ... he's a rising young blues talent. Keep your eyes and ears open for more from him.
Before I begin my review
of Sweet Emotion: Songs of Aerosmith (Heavy Hip Mama), here's a
disclaimer --- I've never really cared very much for Aerosmith's music. A fan of
this supergroup might view this album differently. Personally, I think it
sucks. The concept itself is a bit weird --- Aerosmith's big hits, which of
course were influenced by blues and soul, covered by blues and soul singers.
Otis Clay, who I think is one of the best singers on the planet, does a version
of "Cryin'." Clay sounds good, but it's just not a good fit for him.
Blues piano legend Pinetop Perkins is backed by guitarists Rusty Zinn and Ronnie
Baker Brooks on one of Aerosmith's biggest hits, "Walk This Way."
Pinetop sounds real disinterested in the whole project, and the recording comes
across as sounding forced. Two other excellent musicians in Marshall Crenshaw
and harmonica player Sugar Blue turn in a mediocre version of "Big Ten Inch
Record." Lou Ann Barton's take on "One Way Street" is marred by
annoying slide guitar from John Spiegel. The first decent performance happens on
the eighth cut when gospel singer Kim McFarland steps to the mic for a stirring
--- Bill Mitchell
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Revised: June 30, 2001 - Version 1.00
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