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July 2023

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Order these featured albums today:

Joanna Connor

Hudspeth and Taylor

Nic Clark

William Lee Ellis

Mick Kolassa

Lady Adrena

Stevie J Blues

Nigel Mack

Jimmy Bennett


Joanna ConnorI first became familiar with Joanna Connor in the late ’80s, on the heels of her debut release for Blind Pig. She was a powerful guitarist and vocalist back in those days and has only improved over time. After several releases with Blind Pig, she signed with Ruf Records (the second artist to do so), and later with M.C. Records after deciding to stick close to the Windy City to raise her kids in the early 2000s, also serving as the resident band for the House of Blues and the Kingston Mines.

In 2019, one of Connor’s performance videos caught the attention of Joe Bonamassa and director Adrian Lynne, who cast her in a scene performing in his movie "Deep Water." Meanwhile, Bonamassa signed Connor to his KTBA Records label, where she released the acclaimed 4801 South Indiana in 2021.

Now with the Gulf Coast Records label, Connor has recently issued Best of Me, a powerful set featuring her with her band (Shaun Gotti Calloway – bass, Jason “J Roc” Edwards – drums/background vocals, Curtis Moore, Jr. – keyboards, Dan Souvigny – rhythm guitar/keys), along with guests Bonamassa, Gulf Coast label head Mike Zito, Josh Smith, Gary Hoey, Jason Ricci, David Abbruzzese, and the Grooveline Horns.

The funky “House Rules” leads off the album, a deep slice of blues and funk with Connor’s fierce slide guitar front and center along with stellar support from the horns. The mid-tempo “Pain and Pleasure” is a soul ballad that features Smith on guitar. Connor’s vocals are spot-on and she offers more tasty slide guitar work as well.

The title track has a smooth gospel/soul feel as Connor testifies, both vocally and on guitar, to the power of love, and “Highway Child” is a crisp country-flavored blues with Connor and Bonamassa trading licks. “I Lost You” is a superb slow blues, as Connor turns in a marvelous vocal performance and her guitar work is equally intense.

“Two of a Kind” is an upbeat, funky R&B track showcasing the horns and the rhythm section, and “All I Want Is You” is a tasty track with a retro R&B feel. Connor’s cover of Robert Geddins and K.C. Douglas’ “Mercury Blues” features searing slide guitar and propulsive drumming from Pearl Jam alum Abbruzzese, and Zito adds guitar to the soulful rocker “Shadow Lover.”

The ballad “Greatest of These” is a pointed look at current events that resounds with hope for a change in the future. The closer is “Shine On,” a rip-roaring blues rocker that teams Connor with Hoey on guitar and background vocals with Ricci joining in with his peerless harmonica playing.

Zito gave Connor and her band free reign on Best of Me, and to say the singer/songwriter/guitarist made the best of it may be the understatement of the year. With its equal mix of blues, rock, soul, and funk, Joanna Connor has crafted an album that truly captures her at her best.

--- Graham Clarke

Hudspeth & TaylorHudspeth & Taylor’s debut album, 2019’s Folie a Deux, was extremely well-received and earned a BMA nomination. For their sophomore effort, Ridin’ The Blinds (Hudtone Records), the duo took a dozen songs, mostly Mississippi Delta Blues written and recorded in the 1920s and 1930s, and completely revitalized them while retaining each tune’s classic appeal and charm.

Both Kansas City residents, guitarist Brandon Hudspeth also leads the band Levee Town and singer/percussionist Jaissón Taylor has been a part of the K.C. music scene for over 30 years.

The 12 tracks range from traditional numbers (“Poor Boy, Long Ways From Home,” “Blues In The Bottle,” “You Gotta Walk That Lonesome Valley”) to tunes from Mississippi Fred McDowell (“Write Me A Few Of Your Lines”), Otto Virgial (“Little Girl In Rome”), Skip James (“Hard Time Killin’ Floor Blues”), Memphis Willie B. (“Lonesome Home Blues”), Blind Blake (“Police Dog Blues”), Bukka White (“Parchman Farm Blues”), Mance Lipscomb (“Run Sinner Run”), Muddy Waters (“Can’t Be Satisfied”), and Big Bill Broonzy (“Hey Hey”).

The pair’s primary aim was to bring back some of the the genre’s songs that haven’t been heard as frequently in recent years and take the songs in different directions, while maintaining the melody and structure of the originals.

It’s safe to say that their mission was accomplished. Hudspeth’s guitar work throughout the disc is superlative, particularly his slide work. Meanwhile, Taylor’s vocals are equally amazing and the two complement each other so well. The music is so good that most listeners will wish that the album was much longer than its 39 minutes.

Ridin’ The Blinds serves as a wonderful tribute to the early blues, while giving the songs an updated feel. Albums such as this one not only introduce newer blues fans to some great music, but also encourage those listeners to track down the original source of this classic material.

--- Graham Clarke

Nic ClarkNic Clark is a young Mexican-American musician, and if you have not heard his amazing harmonica skills, his warm, friendly vocals, or his deeply personal songs, you need to give his latest album, Everybody’s Buddy (Little Village Foundation), a spin. Clark has had a tough life, battling an eating disorder that saw him reach nearly 400 pounds at one time. His songs deal with personal struggles and provide a means of coping with tough times, and these songs work on listeners just as much as they have helped him.

He penned 11 of the 12 songs and he’s backed by Charlie Hunter (who also produced the album) on bass and guitar, drummer George Sluppick, DaShawn Hickman on pedal steel and Wendy Hickman on backing vocals.

The opening track, “Laughing At The Rain,” puts you in Jimmy Reed mode with Clark’s harmonica and his optimistic lyrics and vocal. The weighty “It’ll Be Alright” was written after Clark’s grandmother passed away, helping him deal with the devastation of her loss, and “Try To Understand” finds him reflecting on dealing with the fallout from totaling two vehicles in two years and maintaining a postive outlook.

“Good Advice” is the only cover on the album. Written by J.B. Lenoir, Clark decided to craft his own version after counsel from his grandmother when losing his girlfriend, which was when he started his weight loss journey. She never got to hear his version, so he dedicates the song to her.

“Hurricanes” is also about dealing with difficulties in life, picking yourself up and persevering, “She’s A Fighter” tells the tale of a couple (the wife was stricken with lime disease, and anyone who’s had that knows the struggles) who helped Clark with his weight loss. “Don’t Count Yourself Out” is a cool old-school blues shuffle that offers encouragement.

Clark’s struggles with caffeine, heightened by the pandemic is the subject of “Anxiety Blues,” and the poignant “How I Met The Blues,” written when he was 11 after the death of his 13-year-old cousin, explains how the youngster turned to the harmonica (and the blues) for solace after that tragic event.

Clark helped raise his niece and nephew, writing “Flying Blind” for her, with the first time she heard it was on this album. The gentle track is enhanced by Hickman’s sympathetic pedal steel accompaniment. The title track will make listeners smile as Clark acknowledges his friends and what they mean to him in his everyday life. Hickman joins in on this track as well.

The closer, “Breathe Slow,” was written after a friend experienced a panic attack while driving. Clark has one of his own after he wrote the song, so the song’s theme is a good one and can easily apply to listeners, too.

In fact, the best counsel I can give to anyone who’s dealing with their own issues, “hurricanes” if you will, is to plug Everybody’s Buddy into their media player of choice. Trust me, Nic Clark’s gentle approach to songwriting and performing is a source of encouragement to those who need a helping hand. While he considers his music “Generation Z” blues, his songs will ring home to blues fans of all ages.

--- Graham Clarke

William Lee EllisIt’s been well over a decade since we’ve heard anything from William Lee Ellis (2006’s God’s Tattoos). The acclaimed blues and roots guitarist has been busy, earning a PhD at the University of Memphis in ethnomusicology (under blues scholar David Evans) and moving to Vermont, where he is Chair of Fine Arts and Associate Professor of Music at Saint Michael’s College, teaching blues, jazz, and gospel music.

The recording of his latest release for Yellow Dog Records, Ghost Hymns, took over 18 months due to the pandemic, but man, was it worth the wait!

Ellis wrote or co-wrote nine of the 12 tracks, and they cover a wide span of musical genres, all anchored by Ellis’s exquisite guitar work. On the lively blues which opens the disc, “Cony Catch The Sun,” Ellis plays fretless banjo solo, but is soon joined by Andy Cohen (dolceola), Fraser Spears (harmonica), and Steve Feinbloom (bass) for the jaunty “Flood Tale,” which has a Piedmont blues feel.

“Pearl River Blues” is a lovely acoustic blues that finds Ellis teaming with Madagasy guitarist Mikahely, and the exuberant traditional tune “All For You” includes a bevy of African percussion instruments (Koblavi Dogah plays axatse, gankogui, clave, and conga; Fernando Barriga plays cigar box, and Feinbloom returns on bass).

“Earth and Winding Sheet” is a haunting instrumental featuring Ellis on guitar with Brooke Quiggins and Ben Lively on violins, John Dunlop on cello, and Matt LaRocca on viola (who also did the string arrangement). The gentle “Call On Me (An Eidolon Air)” finds Julie Coffey joining Ellis on vocals with backing by Pete Sutherland on fiddle, and Ellis goes solo, playing guitar and yueqin (a Chinese stringed instrument) on the wistful, melodic “Lost Heaven.”

The traditional “Mumblin’ Word” gets a rousing mountain treatment with contributions from Neil Rossi (fiddle), Rik Palieri (banjo), Larry Nager (bass/washboard), and backing vocals from Nager, Coffey, and Palieri.
Koblavi returns to collaborate with Ellis on the short but sweet instrumental “Goat Island, and Ellis plays guitar (six and twelve-string), EBows, and aslatua on the somber “River of Need.”

The beautiful instrumental “Belarus” was written by Ellis’s father, Tony (a veteran of Bill Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys), teaming Ellis with Tom Cleary on piano. The closer, “Bury Me In The Sky/I Don’t Feel At Home In The World Anymore,” is a wonderful medley that includes vocals from Kenyan singer/songwriter KeruBo, fiddle from Hannah Assefa, and bass from Nager.

Even though it’s been nearly 17 years since the last William Lee Ellis recording, after listening to Ghost Hymns, it’s like he’s never been away. Blues fans will love the blues songs and the guitar work throughout, but anyone who enjoys listening to beautiful music needs to hear this album.

--- Graham Clarke

Mick KolassaThe ever-prolific Mick Kolassa returns with Wooden Music (Endless Blues Records), his 14th album in ten years (plus six digital-only releases). The most impressive thing about Kolassa’s growing catalog is that it remains remarkably consistent and original in content, both lyrically and musically. Part of this has to be due to his supporting musicians, many of whom have played on nearly all of his recordings --- guitarist Jeff Jensen, keyboardist Rick Steff, and harmonica ace Eric Hughes, along with upright bassist Carl Casperson and drummer Tom Lonardo.

The rest of the contributors on this disc are a most impressive crew as well --- harmonica players Bob Corritore and Vince Johnson, guitarists Doug MacLeod and Tas Cru, and vocalist Libby Rae Watson, with background vocalists Reba Russell and Susan Marshall. The premise behind Wooden Music was to craft songs from scratch in an acoustic setting to allow for more creativity. The result of their efforts is a big, full sound that rivals the usual electric blues album, and Kolassa has brought ten excellent songs to the proceedings (plus one cover).

“Educated By The Blues” opens the album, as Kolassa sings and plays kazoo and basically tells his story of how he came to play the blues and the many artists who influenced him along the way, wtih Hughes on harmonica and MacLeod on slide guitar. MacLeod also guests on the “life lesson” tune “You Gotta Pay The Price,” and Corritore plays harp on “Sugar In Your Grits,” a light-hearted jab at those who venture too far from the traditions of the blues (and grits).

Guy Clark’s “Baby Took A Limo To Memphis” teams Kolassa with Ms. Watson on vocals and she adds plenty of sass and attitude to the tune, and “If I Told You” is blues with a country feel and features harmonica from Johnson.

The wistful “Hurt People” leans toward country/soul, compliments of Steff’s piano and the background vocals of Russell and Marshall. Steff plays accordion and Cru guests on guitar for “Memphis Wood,” an easy-going song about turning to music to get through the hard times. The rollicking “If Life Was Fair” is a song that everyone can relate to, whether they’re blues fans or not.

On “Over My Shoulder” Kolassa encourages us to focus on what’s ahead instead of what’s already happened, but the hilarious “One Hit Wonder” looks at the past and how things do change and how we slow down over time.The country-flavored closer, “Gas Station Sushi,” also hilarious, looks at a hook-up that shouldn’t have been.

Wooden Music is another winner for Mick Kolassa, with lots of great, entertaining songs and excellent musicianship. As with all of Kolassa’s releases, 100% of the net proceeds go to the Blues Foundation, split between the HART Fund and Generation Blues. Even more reason to check out this fine album, and all of his others.

--- Graham Clarke

Lady AdrenaBorn in Jackson, Mississippi, Lady Adrena got her start singing in church at age 5. She began singing and writing Southern Soul music and released a couple of albums over the past decade, but recently issued a six-song EP on Sweet Success Records. Recipe For The Blues features production support from Castro “Mr. Sipp” Coleman, Dexter Allen, Gene Munns, and Bo “Big Bo” Richardson. Although there’s no listing of contributing musicians on the release, five of the six tracks were written by Lady Adrena, one by Munns.

The opener, “Blues Chose Me,” produced by Richardson, is autobiographical, as Adrena tells her tale of how she went from singing in church to singing the blues. Her vocals are strong and the musical support works well.

The blues ballad, “Borrow My Pans,” one of three produced by Allen, show the sweet and tender side of Adrena’s vocals, and “Traveling Woman,” also produced by Allen, is a spunky urban blues, with sharp lead guitar work complementing Adrena’s robust vocal.

Mr. Sipp produced “Good Girl Gone Bad,” an upbeat R&B-flavored blues that also features crisp guitar work in support of Adrena’s sassy delivery. The Allen-produced “No Ring No Thing” reminds me of those classic southern soul tracks on the radio in the late ’80s, with its bouncy arrangement and horns, plus background singers. The title track, penned by Munns (who also produced the track), is a soulful blues ballad that Adrena knocks out of the park.

Despite four producers, the six tracks are a seamless fit. The common factor, of course, is Lady Adrena, who possesses a great set of pipes and a knack for writing catchy tunes. No doubt she has the Recipe For The Blues, and hopefully, she will give her a even bigger helping next time around.

--- Graham Clarke

Rev FreakchildReverend Freakchild’s 17th release, Songs of Beauty For Ashes of Realization (Treated and Released Records), finds the good Reverend revisiting nine of his favorites songs from his 22 years of recording, giving each a new fresh interpretation with a little help from his friends, which include G. Love, Hazel Miller, drummer Chris Parker, guitarist Chris Bergson and Mark Karan, multi-instrumentalist Hugh Pool, and The Reverend Shawn Amos.

Longtime fans realize that the Reverend is constantly revamping and revising his material (including one CD of a 3-CD album – 2016’s Illogical Optimism – that featured multiple revisions of one song, another version of which is included on this new album), so they already know that much fun lies ahead.

The opener, “All I Got Is Now,” was the song that the Reverend devoted an entire CD to multiple interpretations, and this version may be my favorite, a funky blues that adds B3 and an extra set of drums to the mix, with Hugh Pool also playing lap steel and the Rev breaking out the National Resonator. “Dial It In” was the title track to his 2018 release and retains the funky feel of the original, but adds extra percussion. While I didn’t hear the previous version of “All Across America” (from 2010’s God Shaped Hole), this rollicking number is a keeper for sure, a great driving song, and “Hippy Bluesman Blues” is a cool blues with a psychedelic feel, as you might imagine based on the title.

“Amsterdam Blues,” from the Rev’s debut release in 2001 (Blues & Spirituals) is a superb, moody country blues, just the man and his acoustic guitar. “Tears of Fire” was originally recorded as a lo-fi guitar and drums duet on 2015’s Hillbilly-Zen-Punk Blues, but this version is definitely high-fidelity with scorching lead guitar from Chris Bergson and thunderous drum work from Chris Parker. Originally a country-flavored long song, “Skyflower (Watermoon)” is greatly expanded with strings and backing vocals from Sheryl Renee.

The Rev is joined by another Rev, The Reverend Shawn Amos, who adds harmonica and vocals to Reverend Freakchild’s vocals and resonator guitar on “Don’t Miss Nothing ‘til It’s Gone,” a splendid country blues. The grand finale, “Keep On Truckin’,” actually pays tribute to two of Reverend Freakchild’s influences --- country blues legend Blind Boy Fuller and The Grateful Dead, who were a big influence on the Rev’s musical vision of merging blues, country, folk, rock, and soul.

I truly never know what to expect when I crank up a new Reverend Freakchild, but I do know a couple of things. The first thing is that it will never be a dull listening experience and the second is that it will always be fascinating and ultimately rewarding listening. Songs of Beauty For Ashes of Realization is no exception to the rule.

--- Graham Clarke

Stevie JJackson, Mississippi-based soul-blues man Stevie J Blues lives up to his name with the slow burner “Leaving Me,” an interesting twist on the traditional break-up song. The song itself mixes blues, funk, and soul seamlessly, adding some fierce Ernie Isley-like guitar riffs throughout the track, which gives the tune a sharp edge, along with the lyrics, which as stated above, make this song stand out among your average break-up tune. It’s a welcome addition to the busy blues man’s ever-growing catalog.

--- Graham Clarke

Nigel MackIt's been a good month for new albums representing artists that were previously unfamiliar to me. I wrote all about D.K. Harrell's debut disk in our Pick Hit. I should have already known about Nigel Mack, a Canadian artist who wound up in Chicago to continue his blues career, considering that Back In Style (Blues Attack Records) is his fourth release.

Each of the dozen songs on Back In Style are originals, a solid mix of Chicago blues styles. Mack plays both harmonica and guitar, but I believe it's on the blues harp where he really shines. That and his powerful vocals, drawing comparisons to the rich, full voice of Curtis Salgado.

Mack (who's real last name is McKenzie, but we'll stick to his stage name here) shows his harmonica skills right away on the mid-tempo blues "Travelin' Heavy." It's not so much his luggage that's weighing him down, but more the emotional baggage he's carrying. Darryl Coutts chips in with a fine solo on the Hammond B-3. Mack switches to guitar for "Highway 69," laying down some intense Elmore James-style slide guitar licks throughout the song.

"Damn You Mr. Bluesman" tells the story about how this particular blues fan starts to fall in love every time he hears the blues, blaming the messenger for making him fall in love with a woman half his age. It's a fun, funky mid-tempo blues. The mood changes on the snaky blues "Cold Comfort," taking place in Las Vegas as he laments that  the woman needs the dice more than she needs him.

Pianist Neal O'Hara shines on the blues shuffle "Graveyard Gate, made more robust with the big sounds of the horn section. The title cut is another fun, feelgood tune that gets funky as Mack sings that he is "... so glad that love is back in style ..." There's nice interplay between guitar and harmonica, both done by Mack.

 "Redemption" is the album's only instrumental number, a slow spooky blues highlighted by Mack's slide guitar, and then we get more nice slide the up-tempo blues "A Place To Call Home." Mack goes it alone on the acoustic gem "Blues Enough For You," as he accompanies his vocals with a 1929 National steel guitar and a Martin acoustic guitar, while knocking out the rhythm with foot stomps.

"Shangri-La Girl" is a happy, danceable foot stomper with a very hot piano solo from O'Hara, while Mack gives us a feel of the Southwest on "Jalapeño Peppers," with O'Hara driving the song with propulsive piano to complement Mack's slide guitar.

Closing this wonderful album is a mid-tempo blues head-bopper, "Just One Man," with Mack showing even more power in his voice. A nice finish.

Hearing this album from Nigel Mack compelled me to go in search of some of his early work, so now I've got some listening to do. If this is also your introduction to the man's music, Back In Style is a good place to start.

--- Bill Mitchell

Jimmy BennettJimmy Bennett's inspiration for the music on Sunday Morning Sessions (Junkyard Dog Productions) came about during the COVID pandemic in 2020 when he posted a Facebook video on Easter morning of that year. He continued those Sunday morning sessions throughout the time that we were all confined to our homes, and now those Sunday morning sessions have progressed into this fine album of mostly Piedmont-style fingerpicking blues. It's mostly Bennett's show, except when producer John Ginty hops in on vintage vibe piano, Hammond organ, or drums.

Bennett shows off his acoustic guitar skills on the opening instrumental, "Easter Morning Melody," with gentle and tasteful Piedmont-style guitar work. Another instrumental, "Snow Sliding," has Bennett using a slide to good effect while he gets a percussion sound from his foot tapping. Very nice.

Eight of the ten cuts were written or co-written by Bennett, but one of my favorites is the version of Johnny Cash's "Ring Of Fire." Imagine this classic with fingerpicking acoustic guitar backing. Bennett has a pleasant voice, putting a little more power behind his voice to get a little Johnny Cash into it. The other cover is the Delbert McClinton / Tom Faulkner composition "New York City," on which he's joined by Ginty to give it a fuller sound. On this tune he sings about driving from San Diego all the way to the Big Apple. 

I prefer Bennett's vocals on his own "Mr. Charlie," as it's obvious that he's having fun with this tune, while "Will I See You Again" moves his voice further up in the mix, with just a hint of echo. One of the highlights here. The same effect comes across on "Katy Mae," with more depth to his vocals over top of some really nice slide guitar playing.

Closing the album is "Serenade For New Orleans," with very nice slide guitar work, detailing his lament about losing some of the cultural history of the Big Easy.

Sunday Morning Sessions is a pleasant album that's easy on the ears, with some very fine music here. Hearing Mr. Bennett's exquisite fingerpicking guitar takes me back to the days when I lived on the East Coast where that style is more prevalent. Good memories.

--- Bill Mitchell


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