I've followed the career of Maryland-based pianist Deanna Bogart since she was a 20-year-old kid playing in a western swing band. She made the switch to blues many years ago, although there's enough variety in her style to keep her from being strictly labeled as a "blues mama." Her music is accessible to the hipper side of the masses, as previous albums have gotten airplay on AAA radio. Bogart's latest, The Great Unknown (Shanachie), is a very nice showcase of her powerful singing voice and exceptional piano playing. She moves adeptly from a funky, hook-laden original "Wrong Side Of Love," on which her piano work is complemented by some hot guitar licks from Kajun Kelley, to the scorching boogie woogie number "Won't Be Long." Bogart also can handle the syrupy ballads with great effect, as on "But You Know," then transitions nicely to a catchy, yet quirky, jazz tune, "The Great Unknown." To close out this fine album, Bogart gives the listener a real heart-pumping workout on the boogie instrumental "Adam Bomb Boogie." This one smokes from start to finish ... add it to your "gotta have it" list today.
Bay Area guitarist and singer Craig Horton had his 15 minutes of fame during his Chicago days several decades ago, playing the signature guitar part on Jump Jackson's 1962 hit "Midnight Shuffle," as well as playing with Little Walter, The Dells and other Chicago bands. Horton was out of the music business for a lot of years before going back in the studio for In My Spirit (Bad Daddy Records), produced by guitarist Rusty Zinn. One listen to this CD will make you wish that Horton hadn't stayed away from the music biz for so many years. He's a fine T-Bone Walker-style guitarist with a rich, charcoal voice. In My Spirit opens with a pleasant B.B.-style blues, "Chest Pain Blues"(which, of course, starts out with the common blues refrain of "...woke up this morning..."). He then jumps into a mid-tempo Texas shuffle, "3 Days and 3 Nights," which is one of the best cuts on the album. Horton's vocals stand out on this number, not quite a shout but a little beyond his normal volume, and he also tears off some good Texas blues guitar riffs. Horton reprises one of his other 1962 hits, "Ridin' In My Jaguar," on which he feeds a little more echo through his guitar on this typical, hard drivin' car song. The album ends with his new version of "Midnight Shuffle," on which Horton gives a little biographical information spoken over portions of the tune. I found it hard to understand what he was saying, detracting from the power of this very good instrumental. Just play, Craig, and let the music speak for itself.
Eric Bibb is a very special artist who isn't as well-known to American audiences since he spends most of his time in Europe, calling Stockholm, Sweden his home base. I was fortunate to have caught a live performance by Bibb earlier this year, and found him to be both a very talented and engaging artist. His fourth album on Earthbeat! Records, Painting Signs, is a bit different, as he uses a full band on more of the cuts then in the past. The best reason for buying this CD is the guest appearance by soul legend Wilson Pickett, singing a raw, earthy gospel blues on the great "Don't Ever Let Nobody Drag Your Spirit Down." But the rest of Painting Signs, is just as good. It opens with the quirky, catchy blues of "Kokomo," with our first of many chances to hear the accordion accompaniment of Janne Petersson. The album has a heavy gospel overtone to it, not surprising as Bibb dedicates the recordings to the late Pops Staples. One of the better cuts is a jazzy number, "Hope In A Hopeless World," a spiritually uplifting number which introduces us to Linda Tillery and the Cultural Heritage Choir, who appear on several songs. The Gary Davis song, "I Heard The Angels Singing," presents Bibb in a rawer blues format, with excellent gruff vocals and nice piano work from Petersson. "Delia's Gone," is a dark blues featuring Bibb going it solo on acoustic guitar; this one's in kind of a Stagger Lee vein. For something completely different, you'll want to listen closely to the "piano bar" version of Jimi Hendrix's "Angel," with Petersson again providing wonderful piano accompaniment to Bibb's vocals. These two duo again on the title cut, which is a Tom Waits-style slow blues, with Petersson's instrumental work being billed as "strange strings." Painting Signs is an excellent piece of work from an under-recognized performer. Look hard for this one, as well as Bibb's previous albums.
Jesse Thomas first recorded for Victor Records in his native Texas in 1929, at the age of 18. He continued playing the blues until his death in 1995. He made an appearance at the 1992 Chicago Blues Festival, and while in the Windy City, went into a studio with guitarist John Primer and pianist Jodie Christian. The result of that session, finally being released for the first time, is a pleasant "back porch"-style album, Blues Is A Feeling (Delmark). It's obvious that Thomas' music doesn't have the energy of his earlier stuff. But this is by no means an example of a "past his prime" legend being trotted out for historical purposes. Thomas is able to keep up with his younger counterparts, who respectfully back Thomas' music without overshadowing him. All songs are original compositions by Thomas. I especially like his vocals on "Sad Old World," on which he summons up a little more power than on other cuts. There's a certain sameness to many of the cuts, but it's a comfortable feeling for the listener, and not at all boring. The exception is the instrumental number "Jesse, John & Jodie Jam," on which Primer and Christian both take more of a co-starring role.
I've previously written positive reviews of a couple of CDs from North Carolina singer / songwriter Bruce Piephoff (see April 1999 and December 2000 issues). Hamburger Square (Flyin' Cloud Records) is a collection of 23 original songs taken from cassettes issued by Piephoff in 1990 and 1993. There's really only one blues song here, the traditional-sounding "Wadesboro Blues." But it contains a lot of good folk music with innovative songwriting and guitar pickin' from Piephoff, as well as great mandolin work from Arnie Solomon. Assuming that the songs are in chronological order, it's apparent that Piephoff really developed as a performer from 1990 to 1993, as there's a more mature style coming across in the second half of the disc. Being a baseball fan, I found really interesting the story, "Big Foot In The Door," of Big Tom Austin, one of the first black players signed by the St. Louis Cardinals in 1954.
--- Bill Mitchell
After almost thirty years in the business of playing the blues, it's uplifting to see Ken Saydak, one of Chicago's true native sons, finally emerging as a leader after many years of sessions and producing an album or two (including this one) along the way. This second release, Love Without Trust (Delmark), from this very talented piano player and songwriter, not to mention a pretty impressive vocalist in his own right, is a musical sojourn through a very deep well of American musical styles. It begins with a cover of Bob Dylan's "Watching The River Flow," which possesses a very shuffling ragtime-ish feel to it that leads into the first of seven originals, "Love Without Trust", a rather upbeat number with several humourous analogies referring to its title. The bouncy rhythms of "Junco Partner" can't be mistaken for anything but zydeco, with Ron Sorin's soaring harp work in place of an accordion. The slow grinding blues of another Saydak original, "Breakdown," is the story of one man's emotional roller coaster, spotlighting a fine guitar break from guest James Wheeler, who is also joined by another Windy City session great on bass, Mr. Bob Stroger. The first of two instrumental pieces, "Clo Clo Boogie," is a boogie woogie number that shows why Saydak is one of the most sought after piano players in Chicago. The second is a tribute to one of his major influences, Otis Spann, with "Great Northern Stomp," catching fire from the opening notes for four minutes of pure piano wizardry. "Can't Trust Your Neighbor" is your typical 'keep your eye on your baby cuz she'll do you wrong' mid-tempo blues number. It's followed by a shuffling cover of Merle Haggard's story of the mean streets, "Big City," that finds the main character yearning for a simpler life. Another of Ken's originals that continues to score him extremely high marks in the songwriting department for imagination and versatility is "Expressions Of Tenderness." I had to check the writing credits on this one when I first heard it, because I had the odd feeling that I was listening to a Randy Newman tune due to its very colorful lyrics and jazzy, easy flowing arrangement. But then again, I can also hear in my mind's ear Ray Charles doing a smoking cover of this very enjoyable piece. Saydak wraps things with a solo number that's a touching autobiographical tribute to his home state, simply called "Illinois." I couldn't end this review without giving just due to the top-drawer players supporting Ken on this superb album, two of whom are returning from the previous Foolish Man album. The aforementioned Ron Sorin returns on harp and is prominent throughout, making him one to keep an eye on in the future cuz this cat can play! Roland "Stumpy" Miller plucks the bass line with Mark Wydra holding the guitar chair this time around. Greg Bigger thumps out the backbeat on drums, with the lovely voice of Roberta Thomas being heard on three numbers. Love Without Trust is simply a great album. The 13 tunes, whether they are covers or originals, flow together for a very fluid listen due to the tight performances of the band coupled with the great songwriting and razor sharp production of Saydak, whose signature as a producer is all over last year's Zora Young release Learned My Lesson. Add this one to your collection soon, as it's as exceptional a blues album as you will hear this year.
Kevin Moore, a.k.a Keb Mo's, lastest collection of musical magic, Big
Wide Grin (Sony/Wonder), could not
have been more appropriately titled because a Big Wide Grin is what is sure
to adorn the majority of folks' faces who hear it. The Sony/Wonder label has
been known for a couple of years now to feature recordings by mainstream
artists aimed at families to enjoy together without the usual coating of
schmaltz that is usually found within those type of products. This album is
primarily covers of some very recognizable tunes, given fresh and original
treatments that at times outshine the original versions, as is the case of an
absolutely gorgeous and jazzy arrangement of the Stevie Wonder hit "Isn't She
Lovely" that features some mellow vibraphone improvisation from Herb Gibson
and smooth as silk piano work from Jeff Young. Bill Withers' "Grandma's
Hands" is a fabulous duet between Mr. Mo' and the mightily talented Barbara
Morrison, followed by a very poignant tribute to fathers everywhere
entitled "Color Him Father." The sounds of 70s soul gets a nod with a mellow
rendition of "Love Train" that has Moore adding an underlying banjo
accompanied by some lush harmonies on the chorus, making for a very smooth
ride. It's only fitting that a cover of Sly & The Family Stone's "Family
Affair" makes an appearance on this refined album with it's multi-insightful
views of family life that are as relevant today as they were upon it's
initial release close to thirty years ago. Aside from the covers, Moore
includes three new original numbers. "Don't Say No" is a happy little ditty
about the wonders that can be found in the world, while "Infinite Eyes"
explores things on a more 'grand scheme of things level' that encompasses the
entire universe. The standout original is without a doubt the lovely duet
between Moore and Brenda Russell entitled "I Am Your Mother Too,"
basically a love song to kids who may find themselves the children of parents
other than their own. Slickly produced by Moore's longtime bass player, Kevin
McCormick, Big Wide Grin is Keb Mo' putting his all into a project that is
close to the heart due to his involvement with various programs aimed at the
younger set, conveyed across every tune. This is not by any means your
typical, hardcore blues album. It is instead a pleasant mixture of blues and
pop, with some jazz undertones peeking through at times, that makes for a very
happy listening experience. By all means, share this one with your children, or
a big kid or two, that you may happen to know.
The Sidemen's latest record, Rattlebag, indicates that this band is about to break big. From the beautiful layout of the CD booklet, all in sepia tones, with great photographs and brief excerpts of song lyrics sharing the spotlight, to the glorious Colin Linden-produced
sound. Add the fact that a mere two months after its independent release (see
www.thesidemen.com), the CD was picked up by the discriminating NorthernBlues Records (with only a reordering of the song sequence), everything here screams high quality. I thought their previous record,
Dig In, was good, but I wasn't prepared for this new one. I was further led astray by a nice acoustic track on a NorthernBlues sampler that I got a few months ago, featuring The Sidemen with Joe Louis Walker, which was advertised as "To be released,
second half 2001." That track is not on this new CD, and probably for good
reason. It's not that Rattlebag is an overly electric album, but it somehow has a more modern AND more rustic feel than the laidback Walker collaboration mentioned above. In fact, the CD starts with somewhat of a revolutionary track, as far as blues is
concerned. "P.R. Jubilee" is a brief riff with a sampling from an Ervin Webb song, culled from
a compilation of prison songs. (There is another sampling to be found in the song "Trouble
Again," this time from a Sleepy John Estes' record. A source of inspiration for the band, Estes again features prominently in the song "Sleepy John
Estes"). These modern recording techniques are nicely offset by the rural feel of many tracks, thanks to some inspired harmonica work by front man Paul Reddick and to equally impressive guitar sounds coming from Kyle Ferguson (who has since been replaced in the band, unfortunately) and from producer Colin Linden. But what makes the record better than good is the fact that it's not merely a collection of
songs. In fact, many of these share the same references, so that in a way they seem to answer each other. Highlights are numerous, but mostly the first
two thirds of the record are exemplary. Towards the end, the interest wanes a little. If you like modern blues themes and a nice crisp organic sound,
you should definitely sample this record!
--- Benoît Brière
Luther Allison had the distinction of being one of the few blues artists who recorded with Motown Records. After signing with Motown's Gordy subsidiary in 1972, he was able to record three albums with them through 1976. Although he was able to gain a little more exposure due to his affiliation with Motown (there weren't a lot of other blues artists recording on any labels during the early
70s), unfortunately none of the records sold very well. These titles have been out of print for many years (except for a compilation CD,
The Motown Years: 1972-1976, released in 1996), but are now being reissued, with bonus tracks. Luther's debut with Motown,
Bad News Is Coming, shows that the lackluster sales weren't due to the quality of music. Luther's trademark intense vocals and stinging guitar are present, and the songs (though eight of the
11 tracks are covers) are all very well done. Most of Allison's repertoire at the time was covers, but his three originals are worthy, particularly the ominous title track. The bonus cut, Little Willie John's "Take My Love (I Want To Give It All To
You)," bears an uncanny resemblance to "You Can, You Can" from Luther's final CD,
Reckless. Other highlights include his cover of Ricky Allen's "Cut You A-Loose" (which smoothly segues into Willie Dixon's "Spoonful"), and the opener, a cover of "Little Red Rooster" that slowly builds in intensity. In addition, four of the tracks are previously unreleased songs done at the time of the album, left off due to space constraints. The bonus tracks are just as good as the original album tracks, which is unusual. Except for a couple of tracks with some dated wah-wah guitar and arrangements, these tracks are as solid as anything he was doing for Alligator before his untimely death in 1997, and is a marked improvement from his Delmark debut several years earlier. Though the song list is familiar, this is a set that Luther Allison fans should grab as soon as it hits the shelves.
Blues This Bad is, as far as I can tell, the debut CD from Sugarland Slim, a UK-blues band that has lots of delta blues influence and puts that influence to good use. The CD contains three original tracks written by the band and some great covers of old songs by blues artists such as Blind Lemon Jefferson, Son House and Robert Johnson. The CD opens with a track that gives its title to the CD, featuring excellent acoustic slide guitar and harmonica. This is the sort of track that gets you tapping your feet in time with the music, and it sets the scene for a great mix of music throughout almost all of the album. Track two is one of the slowest versions of "Red House" that I've ever heard, and the arrangement lends a whole new flavour to this old Jimi Hendrix classic --- great late night listening. I'm a great Son House fan, and the version of his "Preachin' Blues" here really does the great man justice. Unfortunately, the vocals are recorded a little too low on this track, which detracts from the overall quality just a little. Track five, written by the band, doesn't really work as an audio track, as it's built around a tap-dance routine. However, a friend of mine saw the band live and really liked the routine, so I guess it works visually, if not aurally. Track 11, "Sun Ain't Gonna Rise," written by the band is a great piece of music and could easily be used as film soundtrack music for a movie set in Mississippi. This track makes the whole CD worthwhile for me. It's well worth watching out for this band. I've been told that they are a great live band. Judging from this first effort, they record well, too!
--- Terry Clear
James Johnson comes from Darling, Mississippi, where he used to chase chickens and try to figure out what they said to each other. Later, after he learned music, he taught his guitar to cackle like a chicken. From then on everybody knew him as Super ChiKan. Far too appropriately, he is signed to Rooster Records and his second release on the fowl label, Shoot That Thang, contains 11 original songs lasting 55 minutes. Due to their irregular arrangements, it takes a while to warm to the repetitive rhythms of these back porch Mississippi boogies. Everything about the disc is unique, right down to the comic strip liner notes which effectively present ChiKan's biography. On Shoot That Thang, the birdman nearly does it all. His handmade, painted instruments and drawings line the disc, but it's his musicianship that stands out. His unusual lyrics, superb fuzz-tone guitar, pumping piano and rowdy harp work will astound you. He easily outperforms the heavy bass of Harvell Thomas and simple drums of Dione Thomas. "Guilty Man" is basic, yet it traps you in its groove. Johnson's chicken-scratching lead guitar becomes silky, while he sings about 'so much evil you can almost smell it.' ChiKan's gravelly voice contains plenty of phlegm on "Don't Mess With The Blues." He sees the positive side of the tiny shanties that used to line the south on "Tin Top Shack." Check out these lyrics as proof. "...that ole tin top shack is where I got my rhythm from … you ain't made love until you do it in a tin top shack..." Then he gets philosophical and challenges those who think it's "Wrong To Sing The Blues." As far as Johnson's concerned 'if you ain't rich, you are the blues.' However, the disc is far from being a pity party. There is plenty of humor in the lyrics, too. Just try listening to "Staingy Wid It" without cracking up. The whole band gets down on the raucous title track romp. Twisted nursery rhymes like "… build a house on a hill, build it next door to Jack and make love to Jill … ole Mother Hubbard went to the cupboard to get her dog a bone, when she bent over Rover drove her coz Rover had a bone of his own..." From barnyard clucks and crows to Delta juke guitar distortion, Super ChiKan cannot be caged. As per Harvey Pekar's liner notes, "It's going to be guys like (Super ChiKan) who keep on adding things and changing things and seeing new possibilities." In the immortal words of Johnson himself:, "Don't shoot my rooster coz he don't crow like he used ter." For CDs, booking and information, contact Rooster Blues Records, 255 Mill Street, Greenwich, CT 06830 or www.roosterblues.com.
Whenever a successful debut is released, expectations are always high and the pressure intense for an encore performance. Picking up right where Morning Man left off, Trevor Finlay Band isn’t affected by the sophomore jinx on Bumpy Roads (BKSA Records). Again, he continues to avoid getting trapped into any one musical genre. His roots-based, radio-friendly tunes will appeal to many. Nine of them are original songs with the remainder taken from the band’s regular live repertoire. This package is anything but rocky, thanks to Finlay’s supreme songwriting / singing / guitar playing and the vibrant backing provided by Mark Rehder (drums) and newbie Barry Buse (bass). Throughout the disc, these three combine their chops for some scintillating, vocal harmonies. For just under 60 minutes, Trevor consistently delivers irresistible chord combinations played with a driving beat, as displayed on "Midnight Ferry Ride," "Bumpy Roads" and Heard Enough." There is sweet slide on "Mother Goose," supported by the humming organ of guest Ken Fahie, while Finlay’s eloquent guitar gets kickin’ on "Better Than Other Days." Enough steam comes off his guitar to cook the needed crawfish in "Jambalaya." Canadians will immediately know where the Ottawa, Ontario-based band prefers to purchase their java. Trevor sings all about everyone’s favourite morning drink on a track simply called "Coffee." The tune’s grind is sure to jumpstart you. The rockabilly beat and guitar of "Hurry Up" will raise Scotty Moore’s eyebrows, while "It Ain’t Right" gets turned into a hillbilly boogie. Although far from being a purist, Finlay’s diverse sound is refreshing as it isn’t repetitive 12 bar blues nor blues rock. The packaging of the disc is as professional as its sound. Peter Gilroy and Trevor Finlay’s excellent production work captures a clear, crisp sound that swarms and surrounds. You would never know this is an independent release based on the highly professional packaging and production work. Even big name labels struggle to achieve such standards. For CDs, booking and information contact: Box 295, Orleans, ON K1C 1S7, e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org, website: www.tfband.com.
--- Tim Holek
By now it's common knowledge that Texas has lent some pretty big names to the history of the blues, including Lightning Hopkins, Albert King and the Vaughan brothers. Hailing from the Houston area, Bluesguy Schwartz and the New Jack Hippies soundly continue the tradition with a CD full of good rocking and low-down blues plus inspired R&B. Featuring guest vocalists Gloria Edwards (hell of a voice!) and Heath Spencer Phillip, the New Jack Hippies deliver a nice mix of 12 tunes on Blue Jack Hippies. Through nicely wrought harmonies and capable lead work by Guy Schwartz, these guys (and one girl) raise some Texas dust. According to their website, this band of blues guys travel all around the country treating the folks to their brand of boogie woogie blues. Song highlights include the contemporary blues of "Under Suspicion," Ms. Edwards's very cool blues vocals on "Ain't Got Time for the Blues," with some interesting horn arrangements which fits the song like a well worn glove, and their tribute song to Houston radio station KPFT, "Sunday is Our Time (for the Blues)." I can add some perspective to this song as I was happily listening to the blues show mentioned one Sunday morning as I was driving back to my then residence in Louisiana from Austin. Great tunes and a truly wonderful show to listen to through the always crowded freeways of Houston. Mr. Phillips belts out "Since My Baby Went Away" with an honest emotion rarely found these days. A novelty tune in "Right Now" sounds like the tune was recorded off an antique radio from the 40s. Very interesting. All tunes were written or co-written by Schwartz. Nicely done. Take a listen to the little band from Texas. No, not ZZ Top but Bluesguy Schwartz and the New Jack Hippies. Also check out tour dates and CD info at bluesguy.com.
My personal choice of blues styles is electrified with lots of picking up and down the old fret board, i.e. Stevie Ray Vaughan. Realizing that acoustic blues has always been a viable form in blues circles, I occasionally come across a CD that captures my ears and soul. Such is the case with the re-release of a 1975 recording, Early In The Morning, of Peg Leg Sam Jackson on harp and vocals featuring Louisiana Red on guitar accompaniment. Covering 10 tunes of mainly traditional songs (one tune has actual writing credits), Peg Leg (name refers to his fake leg taken during a freight train mishap) takes us through a journey of early blues as one might have heard cruising through the Jonesville, South Carolina neighborhoods he grew up in. Peg Leg's passionate harp playing and soulful gospel voice sound perfect. Add the admirable talent of Louisiana Red on acoustic and lead vocals on "Going Train Blues," plus guitar on nine more tunes, and we get pleasurable listening from cut to cut. This music conjures up all kinds of images and feelings. Take a listen and see what you come up with.
Not many female singer/guitarists play the blues. Yes, you can dissect the history books and archives, and find right from the beginning that indeed the feminine perspective was visible but greatly overlooked. Most historians give them a nod and
sometimes rightful accolades have passed by the way of the unmistakable giants like Koko Taylor, Etta James and Billie Holiday. If you really did your research you would find hundreds of wonderful woman players throughout the development of the blues. In the new millennium, the curtain has been raised and some truly inspired talents have emerged like Susan
Tedeschi, Sue Foley, Maria Muldar and Shemekia Copeland. Now from Cincinnati (not widely known for its blues) comes
Kelly Richey. On her fourth release, Sending Me Angels, on indie Sweet Lucy Records, Richey comes out blazing with her six string and rough-hewn blues-injected vocals. Dishing out 11 tunes we get treated to Richey's version of get down blues with songs like "Lifetime Guarantee" and a smooth take on Nina Simone's "Nobody's Fault But
Mine," with tasty guitar licks that converts the first time listener. This girl can play. Many different styles are heard on this disc like the gospel influences on the title track, which acts as the final cut. You will definitely feel
rock & roll's thunderous attack on most of the songs like "Now You Need Me" and "Too
Late." Funk even finds it way to Richey's playing as evident on "Sister's Gotta
Problem." Richey's band provides cool support, and she enlists some vets to help as in some of Memphis's finest with the likes of Earnest Williamson Jr. on keyboards and Steve Potts on drums. Richey assists lyrically on three tunes, but lets strong tunesmiths like Delbert McClinton and Eric Clapton's favorite writer, Jerry Lynn Williams, help out. A nice release by an artist that will no doubt help progress the sister movement in the world of blues.
--- Bruce Coen
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