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July 2021

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Order these featured albums today:

Rob Stone

Crooked Eye Tommy

Sugar Ray and the Bluetones

Shawn Pittman


Rob StoneHere's an intriguing album --- Trio In Tokyo (Blue Heart Records) from Rob Stone featuring Elena Kato & Hiroshi Eguchi. We've reviewed albums by harmonica ace Stone in the past, and he's spent time in his native Boston as well as many years in Chicago and now in Los Angeles. For this album, he headed off to Tokyo to record an all-acoustic set with the two musicians mentioned above. I don't have any previous albums from Stone in my collection, but if the music's as good as we hear on Trio In Tokyo then I need to dig back into his earlier stuff.

Stone plays harmonica and handles all vocals, while Kato plays piano and Eguchi lays down a solid bass line. Stone is the star of the show, but don't overlook Kato's consistently outstanding piano playing. She's really, really good. The concept of the album is to re-create standards from the 1930s and '40s, and they do a very good job at capturing that era's vibe.

The best cut is a rendition of Walter Davis' "Come Back Baby," with Kato really standing out with her piano intro on this mid-tempo blues while also getting all gospel-y later in the tune. Stone's voice really resonates on this one. And how can we all not love a Louis Jordan classic, as Stone absolutely owns "Jack You're Dead," with good transitions from his vocals to the harp breaks.

Kato again steals the show with her work on piano on Solomon Burke's "Got To Get You Off My Mind," with Stone's pristine vocals carrying the song. The album opener, "No Money," is good, solid 12-bar blues, a great introduction to the set.

Big Jay McNeely's original, "There Is Something On Your Mind," was supposed to include Big Jay on the recording, but he passed away before he could lay down the sax parts for this slow blues. The interplay between Stone and Kato on the slow blues, "What Am I Living For?," is great.

Kato gets one more chance to show off on the 88s with a very unique rendition of Leadbelly's "Goodnight Irene," as she opens with a piano intro that comes right out of church.

Trio In Tokyo is going to have me digging around for past albums by Rob Stone. They may not hit the same nerve for me as this album, but I have to think there's going to be plenty of quality music. In the meantime, I will keep playing Trio In Tokyo over and over.

--- Bill Mitchell

Gerald McClendonThe music of Chicago soul/blues veteran Gerald McClendon has been in regular rotation for me since I first heard his very good 2020 album, Can't Nobody Stop Me Now, reviewed in Blues Bytes just over a year ago. I've given that album regular airplay on my radio show this year, and have already been spinning tunes from McClendon's newest release, Let's Have A Party! (Delta Roots Records).

I'll start by saying that individually the songs and the vocal work from McClendon on Let's Have A Party! are equally as good as last year's album. There's plenty of good stuff here. My only problem is in listening to it from start to finish I'm finding that there's too much of the same tempo and energy level from song to song. I don't like to compare one very fine artist to another, but check my review of this month's Pick Hit for the Wee Willie Walker album. That one just flows better and feels like there's much more energy throughout.

Okay, now that I've gotten that out of the way, let's look at the highlights on Let's Have A Party!, because, as I said, there's plenty of good material here and McClendon has the voice to handle it. All songs here were written by producer and drummer Twist Turner. The backing musicians are strong throughout, especially the guitar playing of Rico McFarland on his three cuts.

Looking first at the three songs featuring McFarland, "If It Ain't The Blues" is a slow blues with a strong guitar instrumental opening the song. "Throw This Dog A Bone" presents some of McClendon's strongest vocals along with very strong guitar by McFarland, which we also hear on "I Just Can't Help Myself."

We got a more of a mid-tempo funky number on the title cut, with fine sax from Skinny Williams and Hammond B-3 from the always excellent Jim Pugh, but for a party song I'd like a little extra oomph to it. Like, really make that party jump. McClendon packs a lot of emotion into the slow soul ballad, "Pretty Girl." Another favorite is the slow soul number, "You Got To Be Strong," with fine gospel piano accompaniment from Sumito Ariyoshi. I hadn't heard anything from Chicago guitarist Melvin Taylor in quite some time, and the veteran shows up with very strong guitar work on the album closer, "Funky Stuff."

McClendon is one of the finest soulful singers I've heard recently, and there's a lot of quality stuff here. I just don't think the final product measures up to the sum of its parts. More variety in the tempo and energy level throughout Let's Have A Party! would have made it a more complete product for me, but I'll keep listening to the individual cuts because there's quality stuff here.

--- Bill Mitchell

Crooked Eye TommyCrooked Eye Tommy’s sophomore effort, Hot Coffee And Pain (Blue Heart Records), comes five years after their promising debut, Butterflies And Snakes, but the band (Tommy Marsh and Paddy Marsh – guitars/lead vocals, Samuel Corea – bass, Charlie McClure – drums, Craig Williams – sax, Jimmy Calire – keys) has been productive in between releases, reaching the I.B.C. semi-finals in 2019 (previously in 2014) and reaching the 2020 finals as a duo act.

The new album includes nine tracks, three covers, and continues the band’s musical mix of blues, southern rock, and roots. The twin guitar attack from the Marsh brothers is reminiscent of the southern rock sound popular in the ’70s and the duo do a fine job on vocals. The opening track is a slippery, mid-tempo take of Son House’s “Death Letter Blues,” with the brothers’ guitar work intertwining quite effectively, and “Sitting In The Driveway” is a splendid slow burner blues with Paddy Marsh on vocals.

The title track moves into a soulful direction with horns added to the mix, and “Twist The Sky” is a slow-churning rocker. “Baby, Where You Been” is a soulful ballad teaming Tommy Marsh with guest Teresa James (who also plays piano) on vocals. “Angel of Mercy,” originally recorded by Mike Henderson and the Bluebloods, gets a rough-edged with horns and plenty of guitar fireworks, while “The Time It Takes To Live” is another slow blues with the guitars taking on a psychedelic edge.

The band pays tribute to one of their bigger influences with the instrumental “The Big House,” named after the Allman Brothers Band’s residence in Macon, Georgia in the early ’70s (now home to the band’s official museum, which is well worth a visit if you’re a fan), before closing things out with a deliciously funky cover of Sonny Landreth’s “Congo Square.”

Hot Coffee And Pain is a rock solid set of blues, soul, and southern rock that should definitely satisfy fans of those genres, especially those who dig the dual guitar attack made popular by the Allmans.

--- Graham Clarke

Sugar Ray and the BluetonesSugar Ray and the Bluetones have been making some mighty music for well over 40 years. Sugar Ray Norcia (vocals/harmonica), Anthony Geraci (piano), Michael Mudcat Ward (bass) and Neil Gouvin (drums) have been together since the beginning (1979), with several guitarists filling that position over the years. The most recent guitarist to step in with the group was Little Charlie Baty, who unfortunately passed away in March of 2020, so his appearance on Too Far from the Bar (Severn Records) features some of his last recordings.

A whopping 14 tracks (one alternate take included) with eight original tunes from Norcia, Ward, and Geraci and six dynamite covers, this album is another in a long line of excellent Bluetone recordings. The album blasts off with the Five Royales’ “Don’t Give No More Than You Can Take,” a dandy shuffle that features some crisp fretwork from Baty and fine work from the rhythm section in support, and moves into a terrific take on Sonny Boy Williamson’s “Bluebird Blues,” where Sugar Ray and harp are front and center.

The title track, a Norcia original, rolls in at a breakneck pace, driven by Geraci’s peerless keyboard and guitar from Baty and producer Duke Robillard (who also plays on four tracks, making a great album even greater). Norcia also wrote the country-flavored ballad “Too Little Too Late,” and the scorching instrumental “Reel Burner,” which earned its title when a tape machine caught on fire during the recording (this tune is also present as an equally hot alternate take at the end of the album).

Sugar Ray pays tribute to one of his heroes, Little Walter, with a fine cover of “Can’t Hold Out Much Longer” before launching into the jaunty original, “Numb and Dumb,” and covering Jerry McCain’s “My Next Door Neighbor,” kicking things up a notch from the original version. Meanwhile, Ward’s “What I Put You Through” has a smooth, after-hours feel, and Otis Spann’s “What Will Become Of Me” allows Geraci a moment in the spotlight with some splendid Spann-like runs on the piano.

Norcia does a fine job vocally on the standard “I Gotta Right To Sing The Blues,” a standout track among standouts. Geraci penned the lively shuffle “From The Horse’s Mouth,” and Ward delivers on the humorous story-song “The Night I Got Pulled Over,” in which Sugar Ray narrates a close encounter with law enforcement after a late-night gig. “Walk Me Home” is an easy rolling shuffle with an extended harmonica opening followed by Geraci’s piano and Baty’s stinging fretwork.

You can’t go wrong with any album from Sugar Ray and the Bluetones, but Too Far from the Bar is definitely one not to be missed, thanks to the wonderful musicianship between Sugar Ray and his original Bluetone rhythm section and the superb guitar work of Little Charlie Baty. If this was his last session before his tragic death, he certainly went out on a high note.

--- Graham Clarke

Shawn PittmanI’ve heard of guitarist/vocalist Shawn Pittman for a number of years, but for some reason I’d never actually heard Pittman until I got a copy of his latest album, Make It Right! (Continental Blue Heaven). Pittman fronts a powerful trio consisting of father-and-son team Erkan Özdemir (bass, also Pittman’s tour manager) and Levent Özdemir (drums), and they rip through a strong 12-song set (seven originals, five covers) that holds up to multiple listenings.

“Done Tole You So!” has a raw, grinding Hill Country feel that serves as a fine opener, and Albert King’s “Finger On The Trigger” is funk with a rock edge. The title track is a driving, breakneck boogie track that will put a hop in your step. A fresh take on Junior Kimbrough’s “I Feel Good” maintains the droning, hypnotic rhythm of the original while kicking things up a notch, while a loping take of Eddie Taylor’s “There Will Be A Day” is nice and funky.

The slow burner “How Long?” is a nice change of pace coming at about the midway point with some nuanced fretwork and a soulful vocal from Pittman, and the jaunty “For Right Now” is loose and carefree, leading into a, well, sweaty instrumental version of James Brown’s “Cold Sweat” that finds the band completely locked into the groove. Meanwhile, I really like Pittman’s understated vocal and reverb-laden guitar on the Bobby “Blue” Bland standard “Woke Up Screaming.”

The original “Let It Go” sounds like a long-lost Jimmy Reed tune with that great lump-de-lump rhythm, and “Fairweather Friend” is a solid tribute to ’50s era Chicago blues. The album closer, “I’m Done,” is a gritty and grungy rocker with tightly-wound rhythm support and splendid slide guitar from Pittman.

Make It Right! serves as a great introduction to this reviewer to Shawn Pittman, who is a fine guitarist and vocalist in a variety of blues styles. The Ozdemirs make an excellent rhythm section and this set should please blues and blues rock fans.

--- Graham Clarke

Travellin Blues KingsThe Travellin’ Blues Kings (“full Belgian” version) return with another excellent single to get blues fans through the pandemic blues. “Too Many People” (Naked Productions) is a red-hot, smoking blues rocker that borrows from Slim Harpo’s “Shake Your Hips” rhythm and adds horns and harp to make it a truly swinging affair. Jb Biesman (vocals/sax/harp), Jimmy Hontele (guitar), Patrick Cuyvers (Hammond organ, backing vocals), Winne Penninckx (bass) and Marc Gijbels (drums) really tear this number up and the musical interplay backing Biesman’s weathered growl is just perfect. Hopefully, the Dutch members of the band can get back into the picture soon, but we’ll certainly be enjoying the “full Belgian” lineup until then.

--- Graham Clarke



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