When I heard that the greatest blues band on the face of the planet had a new
release forthcoming after two torturous years of silence, I pestered my
editor (the distinguished Bill Mitchell) for the chance to write the review
for Beyond The Source (Tone-Cool), the latest from Rod Piazza and The Mighty
Flyers. What I didn't take into consideration was the quandary I would
encounter ... what do you say about one of the most incredibly
tight quintets in the history of blues music that hasn't been said a thousand
or so times before? I found the answer to be a simple one ... say it all again
and who cares if it's all been said before, 'cuz this sucker smokes! This is a
typical Piazza & the Flyers album loaded with brilliant songwriting,
fantastic musicianship, outstanding production and kick ass performances that
are second to none. This time out these guys have delivered an album that
captures the spirit and intensity of their live performances only in the
studio, but with the crisp rough and tumble edge of their concerts. Produced
by Rod himself and guitarist Rick Holmstrom, the 14 tunes are a mix of
down to earth originals, exuberant jump tunes, barn burning boogie and smoky
ballads served up as only Rod and The Flyers can. Upon my first listen of
this smashingly good recording, I knew that trying to single out highlights
was not going to be an easy task. So I'll just begin at the beginning with the
red hot opening number. "(Who Knows) What's Going On" is a bopping shuffle
that has Piazza's vocals being amped through his harp equipment and Bill
Stuve laying down a bass line that seems to penetrate through your every
nerve ending. "Twist City" is a cool cat groove that will put your hips in
motion with its easy driving beat, and is followed up with a jumping jiving
number, "Shim Sham Shimmy," that is going to crowd a few dance floors.
Inserted directly into the middle of this album are a pair of tunes that
epitomize this titanic ensemble. The first is "Shakin Hands With The
high voltage shuffling stomp that features some explosive harp work from Rod
and a few exquisite chops from one of the most talented guitar players it's
ever been my pleasure to hear, Rick Holmstrom. The second piece, "High Flying
Baby," is a swinging number that is sort of hard to get out of your head, with
a bit of a doo wop flavor to it and an outstanding piano solo from the lovely
Miss Honey Piazza. On the more mellow side of things is "Lovin' Daddy
a slow bluesy number filled with romantic "what ifs" and maybes, while the
moody instrumental "Ghosting" is a piece showcasing the gentler side of
Piazza's harp. Two other instrumental pieces adorn this blues party, one of
which is "Reece's Boogie," a jazzy tune penned by Holmstrom that allows him to
stretch out his fingers somewhat. Closing things out is a duet between
drummer Steve Mugalian and the lightning fast ten fingers, that at times
sound like 20, of Miss Honey flying through her original entitled "Miss
Bee-Havin" that has been part of the live show for some time now and is
thankfully recorded for posterity. Why this incredible piano player hasn't
been the recipient of the Handy Award year after year for her instrument is
beyond my comprehension. Meaning no disrespect to Pinetop Perkins, but I
always thought awards were given for being the best that year not for
longevity. Miss Honey is the best there is out there today --- period. Rod
Piazza &The Mighty Flyers' place in blues history is already reserved, but
their legacy continues to be written with Beyond The Source, a brilliant
work who's timing was perfect. If I may borrow a quote from the liner notes,
"Rod Piazza & The Mighty Flyers have set the standard for the modern blues
band. They continue to raise the bar by which all others will be measured by
and walk on it.' They are indeed, both individually and collectively, the
blues elite. If there is a better blues band out there today I surely haven't
heard them. Make this one a must have.
Throughout the 1990s, Scott Holt, originally from Lawrenceburg, TN, was the Buddy Guy Band's secret weapon. At 19, Holt began playing guitar upon hearing Jimi Hendrix for the first time. After taking lessons for a year and regularly practicing for eight hours daily, Scott's father took him to see Buddy Guy. After meeting backstage, a friendship formed that would last a lifetime, resulting in Scott joining Buddy's band at the tender age of 23. At the end of 1999, Holt quit Buddy's band to pursue a solo career. On Angels In Exile (Blue Storm Music), Scott severs the ties to his blues musical past, only glancing back occasionally throughout the disc's 12 tracks that last 55 minutes. This is the first Holt disc to contain original material. Eight of his own songs are included in this collection of fiery, hard rocking, pop grooves that mix rock with modern country. The tone of his six strings is impressive on every song and all the rhythms are catchy. It is rare to find an artist who is equally talented with his guitar playing, singing and songwriting. He is strongly backed by Geno Haffner (keys), Tom Larson (drums) and Keith Kenyon (bass). Greg Hampton does a fine job producing and was successful in capturing Scott's coarse energy, resulting in a disc with a clear, crisp sound. Holt is now based in Nashville and the influences of the Music City are obvious on the title track. It sounds like it may have been an outtake from the Rolling Stones' Some Girls sessions. Holt's southern drawl is Jagger-esqe on the song. Nonetheless, its the best original tune on the disc, including a wildly passionate guitar solo, and it should prove to be a huge hit on radio. He borrows a riff from SRV's "Cold Shot," and uses it as the driving force on "Too Far Gone." "Dress You Up" is a modern rock song in the vein of Pearl Jam, with chain-saw, rumblin', crunchin' guitar. A soft medley is interlaced with a power-chorded chorus on "Up In Flames." Guest musicians Paul Barrere and Billy Payne of Little Feat round out the sound on "Spanish Moon" and "Blind Willie McTell." On the former, they add enough funk to make it the best of the covers on the CD. Holt has a winner with this irresistible tune. The guitar work, piano playing and sheer energy will appeal to anyone who has a pulse. Scott gives it his all vocally on the latter. In fact, he delivers the lyrics as if Blind Willie was his all-time best friend. Things are toned down on the standard "Got A Mind To Give Up Living." Here, Holt's always pleasant sounding voice needs some grit to match the intense pain expressed with his guitar. He has the potential to soar to greater heights in the rock arena, and thus should be marketed for that field. If you were expecting a young protégé of the blues, you have come to the wrong place. If you have come to hear a wailing, scorching rocker who is destined to be on the next G3 tour, you won't be disappointed. Catch him in the clubs and at the festivals before your only choice is the nosebleeds at the stadiums. For CDs, booking and information, contact www.bluestormmusic.com or www.scottholtonline.com.
-- Tim Holek
For at least a decade, there have been yearly compilations of Grammy-nominated artists in rock, hip-hop and country categories. Well, what about the blues? The Blues Foundation, the Memphis-based organization that annually stages the W.C. Handy Awards ceremony (among many other functions), has decided to address this issue with
The Blues Foundation Presents W.C. Handy Nominees, Volume 1 (Music Blitz Records). If the title of the album is unwieldy, the purpose it serves (to introduce some of the year's Handy nominees, from Shemekia Copeland to Eddy Clearwater, from Son Seals to Guy Davis, to a mass audience through a selection of the best from their most recent albums) is commendable. What's more, the music is great! Which is not to say that everything is perfect, but this is definitely a tradition in the making (if the "Volume 1" in the title means something) worth keeping. The biggest gripe I have (one which a newcomer to the blues or a casual blues fan, i.e. exactly who this CD is intended for, may not feel concerned with) concerns the choice of who to include (and who to exclude) on the album. While every single one of the artists featured here is entirely
deserving (and I know I have to keep in mind that there are only 13 tracks that could
fit), why is it that we get no nominee in the Soul Blues categories, nor in the Comeback Artist one, while we get
four of the five nominees in the New Artist category? (The only ones missing in that category are the North Mississippi All-Stars, who happened to win it!). All five of the Best Albums of the
Year category have one track featured, but only three of the five Songs of the
Year (Shemekia Copeland's entry is NOT her Song of the Year winner, "It's 2 A.M.", but rather her duet with Ruth Brown, "If He Moves His Lips"). But these are only minor points that don't deter from the overall quality of this compilation. In fact, I'm surprised at how well the unidentified compilers have managed to come up with something this entertaining; if I was a blues neophyte, I would keep on listening to this CD. But hey! Even if you do own most of the albums from which these songs are culled, you should encourage The Blues Foundation, and there is one added bonus. Taj Mahal's song is a previously unreleased (until now available only as a MP3 file at
www.musicblitz.com) "Honey Bee". Great cover art, too! (A portion of the proceeds from the sale of this CD goes to the Blues Foundation.)
--- Benoît Brière
Fans of New Orleans R&B will surely find something to interest them in Sundazed's recent
two2-CD anthology Get Low Down, The Soul of New Orleans '65-'67. This collection covers a prolific two-year period in the history of Allen Toussaint and Marshall Sehorn's Sansu Records label. This period is not as well documented as the New Orleans sound of the late
50s and early 60s have been over the years, but it is just as vital a period. During this time, New Orleans R&B was in a transition period, moving more toward a mix of second-line funk and the soul sounds made popular by Memphis' Stax Records, a sound that would soon be taken to fruition by The Meters. Toussaint's fingerprints are all over the 50 tracks included here (four of which are previously unreleased), either as a performer, composer, arranger, or producer. Some of the artists will be familiar to N. O. R&B fans (Lee Dorsey, Benny Spellman, Betty Harris, Art Neville, Earl King), but most of the other artists (Wallace Johnson, Eldridge Holmes, Curly Moore, Willie Harper), although just as talented, were either unable to catch the right break or to sustain any career momentum, which is a shame. Although Sansu only had one chart hit (Harris' "Nearer To You"), several of the tracks included here could have easily duplicated that feat with a little luck. Two hits by Dorsey on the Amy label ("Ride Your Pony" and "Holy Cow") are included, as well as some singles from Tou-Sea Records. The liner notes by Living Blues contributor Bill Dahl are both entertaining and informative. Unfortunately, there is no information on the session musicians, which would have been helpful. While none of these songs are as earth shattering as previous, or later, N. O. recordings, there are not really any bad tracks on this
collection. If you're a fan of any 60s soul, you won't be disappointed.
It isn't often that I can review three of my favorite singers in the same month, so this week's listening has been a real treat for me. The following three CDs are all pretty listenable releases, and the fact that two are "Best Of" doesn't hurt as far as overall quality of tracks. In reality, the tracks on Francine Reed's I Got A Right ... To Some Of My Best (CMO) are all re-sung and not, as first glance would lead you to believe, just reissues of her two earlier Ichiban releases. As the liner notes report, those early Ichiban releases are no longer available, and so many of her fans wanted those tracks. They decided to re-record them since the original masters are legally unavailable. Just a listen to Francine's show stopper song, "Wild Women," and the differences are immediately noticeable. Comparing this to the earlier Ichiban track, and then to the old Bombay Bicycle Club 45 of that tune trecorded by Francine in the early 80s, shows that each version is a classic in its own right. So much for history. There is a great duet with Willie Nelson on "The Night Life," and just Francine and a piano on the old Percy Mayfield tune "Please Send Me Someone To Love." There's a nice cover of Wilbert Harrison's "Let's Work Together" and Muddy Waters' fine "I Want You To Love Me," with Tinsley Ellis on guitar, and one unreleased track from the Shades of Blue session. For all of the Francine Reed fans out there, you need this release. To her new fans, welcome a board.
The equally fine Irma Thomas release, If You Want It, Come And Get It, culled from her seven Rounder releases and part of their 30-album Heritage Series, doesn't have a weak moment. Starting with "All I Know Is The Way I Feel" and two of my personal favorites,"The New Rules" and the incredible "The Story Of My Life," this release has 16 tracks of soul heaven. There's a previously-unissued track from the excellent album she did with Marcia Ball and Tracy Nelson, and an extended version of "If You Want It, Come and Get It" from her My Heart's In Memphis - The Songs of Dan Penn CD. This is just a beautiful release from beginning to end, one you want to load into the car CD player and have it play over and over all the way to San Diego. Oh, it works pretty well at home, too.
That brings us to the third release, Barbara Carr's The Best Woman (Ecko), the title of the album and the first track therein. It is a catchy tune and should be getting a bit of airplay on the Southern radio airwaves. The equally infectious "Shont Dont Dont" ( not misspelled), has an early Caribbean sound to it and will also get some airplay. This is the fifth Ecko CD from the "Bone Me Like You Own Me" woman, and her strongest to date. Although there are no songs with quite the graphic title as that one, "Hooked On Your Love Bone" from this release comes close. Considering that this release has a distinct contemporary feel to it (as do most of Ecko's releases), it won't surprise me if it is a top candidate for the best of the new soul/blues releases by a female artist this year, and deservedly so.
I really wanted to like the new CD, Rollin' (Rooster Blues), from Lady Bianca, a veteran of the Bay Area blues scene. Lady Bianca is long overdue for a breakout album. Unfortunately it is not this one. The songs on this release seem contrived, and Bianca sounds like someone just going through the motions. Perhaps she is a "live" entertainer and needs the audience to motivate her, or perhaps it's just the run of the mill tunes that appear here. The musicians play their hearts out, but even that fails to lift this release to the next level. A pity, because so many of the new soul/blues releases rely on drum programming and synthesizers, and this release offers the real thing. I'd be hard pressed to pick the best track, so I'll default to the final one, "Roll Thang," which at least has some dance club potential. Try to hear this one first before you plunk down your hard earned dollars.
--- Alan Shutro
Louisiana Red is, without a doubt, one of the most eclectic blues artists of the current generation of performers. Since he spends most of his time in Europe, it's always a pleasure to have him visit the United States, and it's an added bonus when he ventures into the recording studio while on these shores. The result of one of his latest returns to the homeland is Driftin' (Earwig Records), a collection of 15 mostly original songs recorded in Chicago in 1999. It contains a mixture of solo numbers and band tracks. Regardless of whether Red is going it alone or with the band, this is raw blues at its best. "Hard Hard Time" is a deep blues with Red playing some nasty slide on his acoustic guitar. The hottest band track is his lament about his lady slipping out the back door on "Powder Room Blues," a rough and tumble mid-tempo blues with good harmonica from Willie "Big Eyes" Smith. The album finishes strongly as Red blesses us with a traditional country gospel number, "He Will See You," on which his vocals take on more of a shout. Great stuff ... don't miss anything from this wonderful bluesman!
A surprising independent release from Canada comes from singer / acoustic guitarist Rita Chiarelli. Breakfast At Midnight (NorthernBlues Music) shows Chiarelli to be a strong vocalist, at times sounding like a Canadian Marcia Ball and then again occasionally singing in a dark, foreboding Tom Waits tone. There's plenty of variety here, too, witness the Tex-Mex feeling of "Never Been Loved Before," with fine accordion from Richard Bell. Chiarelli's voice takes on a raspier, more soulful timbre on "Memphis Has Got The Blues"; Phil Dwyer's sax work sounds like a whole horn section at work here. "Midnight In Berlin" could have come from the Tom Waits songbook, but is an effective late night, jazzy blues written by Chiarelli. The closing number, "Eggs Over Easy," makes me want to head for kitchen as Chiarelli harmonizes with Colin Linden about having "...eggs over easy with a vodka or gin..." Danny Greenspoon plays pleasant dobro on this folkie blues song. For more info, visit the NorthernBlues web site.
JL Stiles gigs regularly in Northern California, appearing alternately as a solo act, as a duo with a drummer behind him, and sometimes as part of a trio. The name of this CD, Solo Sessions (Shoeless Records), immediately tells you what to expect from the music here. What you won't know until listening to the disc is that Stiles is a very good acoustic guitarist, playing in a fingerpickin' style and at times sounding reminiscent of guitar master Leo Kottke. The best number is the country gospel-ish tune "Fellow Grove," with Stiles' voice overdubbed to accompany himself in harmony. "Slow Rider" and "Fall By The Wayside" both show his wizardry on guitar, as his fingers fly across the strings on these songs. "Never To Grow Old" is a catchy, Ted Hawkins-style number. All tunes are original compositions with the exception of one traditional number. For more info on Stiles, you can check his web site at www.jlstiles.com.
Severn Records, the little blues label from Maryland, continues to crank out quality release after quality release. The latest, Rockin' Sugar Daddy, comes from Sugar Ray & the Bluetones. Sugar Ray Norcia is best known for his work as the onetime front man for Roomful of Blues, and is a singer with a rich, bluesy voice and an accomplished harmonica player. The material on Rockin' Sugar Daddy, both original and cover tunes, moves seamlessly between several different styles of blues. The title cut is a Lazy Lester-style swamp blues written by Norcia and showcasing his superb harp playing. Another highlight is the version of "It's My Life, Baby," done in a much slower tempo than the original. Norcia rips off a killer harmonica solo part way through the song, followed by some slashing guitar riffs from Kid Bangham. Previous recordings featuring Norcia have focused more on his vocal work, but this disc does a great job of showcasing his instrumental talents, especially on the Little Walter instrumental "Off the Wall." The best cut on the album is the Bangham-penned slow blues "Room 531," which features Norcia on the chromatic harmonica and more great guitar work from Bangham. Norcia's best vocal work comes out on the mid-tempo shuffle "Warm Hearted Woman." The album starts to lose a little steam towards the end, but it's still a good listen for fans of Sugar Ray.
Replacing Sugar Ray Norcia as vocalist with Roomful of Blues was Mac Odom, who brought a grittier, more soulful sound to the horn-driven big band. While their overall sound is not as punchy as in the old days of the band, this is still a good, fun band. Watch You When You Go (Bullseye Blues & Jazz), the second Roomful CD featuring Odom on vocals, is really the singer's showcase. He immediately shows his pipes on the soulful blues "Roll Me Over." "Salt Of My Tears" has a good Tyrone Davis-style intro followed by stinging guitar solos from Chris Vachon. "You Give Me Nothin' But the Blues" is a bluesier version than the original, and the addition of vibraphone accompaniment is a nice touch. I really like how everything comes together on "Your Love Was Never There," with interesting tremolo effects on Vachon's guitar and some heavy singing from Odom. But after the first few cuts, the band starts to run into a little trouble, and the album gets a little boring. Roomful of Blues is now more of a soul band than their previous role as the country's premier jump blues band. Your interest in this CD will depend on whether you're willing to make that transition with them. But it's not a real smooth ride.
--- Bill Mitchell
The Canadian Stony Plain label has been releasing excellent discs by American artists at a time when our homegrown labels seem to be cutting back (or, as in the case of the New Orleans-based Black Top, regrettably disappearing). Here are two of their latest. Guitarist / vocalist Sonny Rhodes is one of the last living practitioners of the classic Texas blues sound of the 50s and 60s. Although not as well-known as some of his departed contemporaries like Freddie King and Albert Collins, he's one of the most consistently strong artists on the scene, on stage or in the studio. Although his recordings over the past decade have appeared on a variety of labels, they have all been recorded at the Kingsnake Studios in Floria. A Good Day continues this successful partnership with producer / bassist Bob Greenlee, who contributed with Sonny to compose the album's 11 original numbers. In fact, aside from his soulful singing and serious axe prowess on both guitar and lap steel, Rhodes is probably one of the most creative songwriters in the blues today. If you haven't heard this man before, A Good Day is an excellent introduction to his talents.
Blow Mr. Low is the solo debut of baritone saxist Doug James, who has graced innumerable recordings over the past 25 years, most notably those of his former band, Roomful of Blues. The disc's title refers to the sound of his instrument. Although the sound of the alto and tenor saxes may be more familiar to contemporary ears, the "bari" has a long and noble tradition in both jazz and jump blues. Back in the late 40s and early 50s, when the type of jump blues celebrated herein was popular, the sax solo on a record by a singer like Big Joe Turner or Wynonie Harris was almost as likely to be from a baritone as from one of the other, smaller instruments. Although the repertoire here is mostly instrumental, there are four vocal numbers shared equally by two Roomful alums, producer / guitarist Duke Robillard and Sugar Ray Norcia. It's an outstanding disc in every respect, one which can be unreservedly recommended to fans of both Roomful and the Duke.
--- Lee Poole
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Revised: August 26, 2001 - Version 1.02
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