Blues Bytes

October 2001

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What's New

The Essential Tommy CastroDuring the second half of the 90s, Tommy Castro helped to develop the contemporary blues sound of today. While growing up in San Jose, he was inspired by the likes of Eric Clapton and Mike Bloomfield. After realizing who influenced them, he became enthralled with the blues. Tommy went on to play with many Bay area bands and in 1991, he finally formed his own group. He sings charismatically, plays wailing guitar and writes forceful fist pounding rockers, all with ease. In Joseph Jordan's short yet concise liner notes, Castro is quoted: 'It's not about me and my guitar. It's about the band and the songs.' The Essential Tommy Castro (Blind Pig), comprised of his four previous Blind Pig releases, is a consistent 50 minute set of catchy, modern blues. No less than nine different musicians back Castro on the journey. A heavy bass and sharp, cutting chords provide the rhythm on "Can't Keep A Good Man Down." It includes a slow guitar solo that picks up speed and builds to the point of detonation. The melody is as charged as the lyrics. This is contemporary blues at its finest. "Exception To The Rule" begins as a West Coast shuffle but breaks into a hearty guitar jam. Sax man Keith Crossan hits notes that are sure to pierce the ears of dogs on "Lucky In Love." The pace changes on "Just A Man" to the soul era, direct from the Stax studios. Here, Castro does a fine impersonation of Delbert McClinton. "Had Enough" is an anthem style blues-rocker. The lyrics, 'had enough of the blues,' describe the Californian's mental and musical outlook. Don't expect to find 12 bars on this tune. Thanks to the fantastic organ accompaniment of Stu Blank, "Nasty Habits" excels as a funky boogie. "Right As Rain" features the electrifying background vocals of the Bay area's gospel choir, Glide Ensemble. Like a fast rising tide, you cannot halt the rise of the Tommy Castro Band. Of course Tommy's career has barely begun and it is anticipated that he will be around for a long time, rising to meteoric popularity. Thus this compilation is destined to be an explosive showcase of his early legacy. Although 12 of Tommy's best tracks, including two previously unreleased, and a bonus video track may not be enough to attract existing Castro fans, this disc will surely aspire new fans to go in search of his back catalog.

--- Tim Holek

Sista Monica - Live In EuropeSista Monica's Live In Europe (Mo Muscle Records), recorded at the Belgium Rhythm N' Blues Festival, catches Monica at her best, in a live setting, as we here in Arizona already know. Memories of her incredible performance at The Phoenix Blues Society's Blues Blast 2000, still come up in conversations today. This CD is her live show at its best, and the audience shouts their appreciation throughout. Her ability to interact with her audience always make her performances exciting. Monica reprises four songs off her 1997 self titled release. "I Don't Want To Hurt You Baby," "What Difference Does It Make," "Never Say Never" and "I Been Bamboozled" are all part of her fabulous show. While we are on the subject of fabulous, check out that voice. Danny Beconcini has been with Sista Monica for a number of years, and his keyboard work and musical direction take this release to a high level. Even if you have her earlier releases, you should pick up this release, a souvenir of a great "live" performer. As Sista Monica states on the cover of this release, "One of the best Blues Festivals in the world." I feel confident that she thinks the other one was Blues Blast, as she had a wonderful time when she was here. Kudos to the good Sista.

When asked to review the new Etta James release of all standards, Blue Gardenia (Private Music), I approached this assignment with apprehension. I mean, how can anyone, even the great Etta James, attempt to improve on the classic Dinah Washington's versions of "This Bitter Earth" or the title track "Blue Gardenia" (sung by James' mother) or Billie Holiday's "My Man" or "In My Solitude." Well, I'm here to report, NO ONE CAN. This album is a total waste. The idea of forming an all star band with the likes of Cedar Walton, Red Holloway and George Bohannon was probably a great idea gone bad, as the song selection, as great as it is, works against this release. I mean everyone has heard Billie Holiday and the incomparable Dinah's recordings, so it is incredulous to me that this release ever saw the light of day. I even searched out other versions of these songs, hoping to prove to myself that there was some merit in this album. Julie London's version of "Cry Me A River" was her signature song and towers over James' version. Big Maybelle's version of "Don't Let The Sun Catch You Crying" left me with my mouth open after her incredible take. All I can recommend is pass on this Etta James release and pick up her Tell Mama-The Complete Muscle Shoals Recordings. If you already have that, buy yourself Billie Holiday's Greatest Hits. To quote the liner notes, "Great music is great music: it stands the test of time." I rest my case.

Rick LawsonRick Lawson is a new name to me, but I have to admit he sounds like a seasoned pro. Dubbed "The Baby of the Blues," he is vying for a place in the ever popular chitlin circuit now being led by the likes of Tyrone Davis, J. Blackfoot and Mel Waiters. No one has ascended to the throne left unoccupied by the death of Johnnie Taylor. I'm not suggesting that Rick Lawson is THAT good, but the potential is there. He is a recipient of the Jackson Music Awards "Most Outstanding New Artist of The Year." We have debated the merits (or lack of) drum programming and the synthetic sound that appears on most of Ecko's releases. Lawson's new album, 24-7 (Ecko Records), has at least an additional keyboard. John Ward and Raymond Moore still handle most of the songwriting. But a few new names are starting to get some songwriting credits, so perhaps we will be given a bit of diversity by Ecko in the future. The title song, "24-7," and the opening track, "Both In The Wrong," should both get some air play. My favorite track is "When I Turn Out The Lights," a song that grows on you with each listen, and "What's On A Woman's Mind," a tune that shows off Lawson's pipes. An artist to watch.

Sheba Potts-WrightSheba Potts-Wright is also a new name to me, and I can say I was pleasantly surprised by this, her first CD, Sheba, for Ecko Records. The opening track, "Slow Roll It," is Sheba's answer to the hit song by The Love Doctor. She lets us all know that she can slow roll it with the best of them. This is young, contemporary southern soul, not hip hop or rap. She touches all the familiar bases, such as "Don't Give Up on Your Woman" and the cheating songs "I Caught You" and "Lipstick On His Pants," on which her man managed to remove the lipstick from his shirt, but missed one tell tale area. If you are a fan of Denise LaSalle (for whom Sheba worked as an opening act), or the storytelling of Shirley Brown and Millie Jackson, then you'll enjoy this new release. This is Ecko Records 40th release, and one of their finest along with the Barbara Carr release of several months ago.

--- Alan Shutro

While it may sound unusual to have a harmonica as lead instrument in a jump blues setting, twenty-six year old harmonica wizard Dennis Gruenling and his band, Jump Time, successfully pull it off on their latest release, That's Right (Backbender Records). Gruenling is a spectacular harmonica player, easily one of the best recording today, and proves to be an accomplished composer, arranger, and producer on this release as well. He wrote 11 of the 18 tracks and they all sound as if they could have been composed during the jump era. In addition, his harmonica blends perfectly into the jump blues setting. His tone and phrasing (on diatonic and chromatic harmonica) is right on the money, sometimes sounding like one of the saxophones, and you notice something new with each listen. Jump Time (Eric Addeo, drums; Dave Rodriguez, bass; Andy Riedel, guitar; Scott Monetti, piano; with guests Jeff Rupert and Doug Sasfai, tenor saxophone and Cliff Pecota, bass saxophone) provides ideal backing and each member gets his moment in the spotlight, with all acquitting themselves very well (jazz legend Kenny Davern guests on two tracks). The vocalists are also standouts, as vocalist Gina Fox supplies sultry, jazzy vocals, and guest vocalist John McCuiston also contributes solid vocals on six of the tracks. Among the highlight tracks include "1313 Stomp," "I Can't Believe You're In Love With Me," "Blue Beat Boogie," "I'm Coming Back Home," "Boiling Point," and "More of What You Got." In short, this is an enjoyable CD that is highly recommended for fans of jump blues, not to mention harmonica fans. Dennis Gruenling is a name that you'll be hearing more about in the future. (

Scotty Mac & the Rockin' Bonnevilles' second release, Graveyard for the Blues (SMRB Records), is an interesting mixture of blues and rockabilly. Their sound, to me, is a combination of some of the better aspects of the Fabulous Thunderbirds, the Paladins, and the Tail Gators. Scotty Mac is a talented guitarist, at home with rockabilly, surf, or blues licks (as evidenced on several tracks, notably the instrumentals "Vampire of the Blues" and "Dirty Martini," which also has some mean harp by Ted Hennessy). Hennessy is a gritty vocalist and, as mentioned above, blows a mean harmonica. He also has a knack for writing some original lyrics, as evidenced by the witty title cut, "Fact or Fiction" and "You Don't Know That You Don't Know," and the definitely offbeat "Dinosaurs In Heaven." Scotty Mac also has a way with a lyric, with two great compositions, the rumbling opener "Check for a Pulse" and "Call It Quits." The rhythm section (Johnny Ellis, bass; Chad Ploss, drums) are the group's backbone, maintaining a steady groove throughout the disc. While it's not all straight blues, it's definitely worth listening to due to the band's original songs and the one-two punch of Scotty Mac and Hennessy, and it is available at

--- Graham Clarke

Bob DylanWhen is a good record, a great record? Do we have to wait a few years, so that the passage of time has only left a few albums worth hearing, the rest having disappeared in the cracks of our memories? Mark my words --- in 20 years time, people will still be praising Love and Theft, the new album by Bob Dylan (on Columbia, of course), just as people today still acknowledge the importance of his landmark Bringing It All Back Home and Highway 61 Revisited albums. The comparison is not fortuitous. Love and Theft features a hot blues-rock guitarist, Charlie Sexton, in lieu of Michael Bloomfield, and it's Dylan's return to the blues (however warped and idiosyncratic), just as his mid-60s electric albums just oozed with blues. Aside from the direct quotes from the classics (you just know that Dylan knows everything about them), like the song "High Water (For Charley Patton)," which updates/comments Patton's "Highwater Everywhere" (as well as Robert Johnson's "I Believe I'll Dust my Broom"), the record is full of various pieces of blues lore, those stock phrases that early bluesmen freely used, except that Dylan gives them a new twist. For example, this excerpt from "Mississippi" ... "...Everybody's moving, if they ain't already there/ Everybody's got to move somewhere/ Stick with me baby, stick with me anyhow/ Things should start to get interesting right about now..." There are many more where that came from. As always, there are just as many meanings you can assign to these songs as there are listeners. I found that most of the album can function as a sort of declaration on Dylan's part, sort of "You may think I'm over the hill, you may think I'm passé, but you really should listen to me, because I still mean something." To quote the man himself "...How can you say you love someone else, you know it's me all the time..." (from "Summer Days"). Of course, Dylan sounds like a pair of worn out corduroy trousers that spent a month in the snow in your backyard, yet, his croak oddly grows on you. The musicians, which include multi-instrumentalist Larry Campbell and a couple of Tom Waits veterans (Augie Meyers and Tony Garnier), played everything live in the studio, without any overdub, doing a song over and over until they got it right. The result, as expected, is full of raw energy. Just like, I suspect, Dylan himself.

Some people are inexplicably born into the wrong era. Take Michelle Willson's example. If that woman had been singing in the 40s and 50s, she probably would be remembered today as one of the great singers, alongside her idols Dinah Washington, Ruth Brown and Etta James. Instead, she works in relative (and undeserved) anonymity because the type of music she likes to sing and at which she excels, jump blues, is for the most part considered an art form of the past, with few practitioners and almost as few fans. But the lady has got a fantastic set of pipes. To quote the Music Hound: Swing! Essential Album Guide, "the neo-swing movement desperately needs a voice, and […] Willson is perfect for the job - she can make a ballad swoon and a rocker kick." Her latest album, Wake Up Call (on the newly renamed Bullseye Blues & Boogaloo label), is evidence of this assessment. The leadoff title track, with a great bass clarinet riff from reedman Scott Shetler, is a great ballad-type smooth song, and it's immediately followed by a cover of Big Mama Thornton's "Barking up the Wrong Tree," where Willson measures up to the no-nonsense power of the song's originator. Other highlights include a gospel-ish cover of Delbert McClinton's "Leap of Faith," a jazzy take on Dave Alvin's "The Way You Say Goodbye" and some just-right-for-the-job originals, including the hard-driving "Set You Free," where guitarist Mike Mele and drummer Zac Casher get a chance to shine. But whether she croons or belts out a mighty scream, the star of the album is very much Willson, which is saying something, given the excellent backing she gets (Ken Clark on B-3 and Scott Shetler on tenor sax shine throughout). It seems obvious to me that this disc will be nominated at next year's Handy Awards.

Here's a CD that is sure to put a wide and manic smile on your face: Girl With A Job from Jersey City, N.J. band Better Off Dead (GarageLand Records). If you like the Fabulous Thunderbirds for their raunchiness, and Little Charlie & The Nightcats for their humor, or if you like the zaniness of Bo Diddley's brand of R&B, then you'll find this CD to be right up your alley. Apart from three rather obscure covers (Rex Garvin's ode to James Brown, "Sock it to 'Em JB," The Treniers' "Rockin' is 'R' Business" and Bo Diddley's "Mama Keep your Big Mouth Shut"), every song is an original, with plenty of fat juicy guitars, rugged but right harmonica licks, big bouncy beats and feel-good choruses sung by everybody and their friends (including Shemekia Copeland's keyboard player, Doña Oxford). Singer/guitarist (and songwriter) VD King is not exactly a classically trained singer, but his throaty (or sometimes nasal) party hardy voice is just the right instrument for this here fiesta in your CD player. If you end up dancing on the kitchen table or jumping naked in your neighbor's pool while listening to this CD, don't be too disturbed by your own actions. These things happen when you're having so much fun. Now stop reading this review and head on over to You can thank me later.

Before getting his CD, I had never heard of Rab McCullough, and I suspect that neither have you, unless you're some sort of expert on the local music scene of Northern Ireland. This guitarist and singer has not enjoyed the fate of his contemporaries Van Morrison, Rory Gallagher and Gary Moore, simply because, contrary to them, he chose not to leave his country after 1968, when "the troubles" broke out. And so, for close to 30 years of nasty and painful civil war, he lived in a besieged city, Belfast, caring for his family and doing his best to grow as a musician while his above-mentioned countrymen enjoyed international success. Belfast Blues (Blue Storm Music) is the first chance we have to enjoy his music. Recorded in Brooklyn and co-produced by Popa Chubby, the album, though very brief (seven tracks, barely 30 minutes of playing time), gives us ample time to appreciate McCullough's fiery guitar playing and tough R&B-style voice. All the songs on the CD are original compositions. I tend to prefer the all-out rockers, though his guitar tone and control is impressive on the slow burner "Ain't Gonna Be Your Fool." I don't know what lies ahead for McCullough, but I dare predict he won't have to wait another 30 years for his next chance in the studio…

As a matter of fact, you can find Rab McCullough's name (on five tracks, either as guitarist or singer, or both) on Dick Heckstall-Smith's latest album (actually credited to Dick Heckstall-Smith and Friends), Blues and Beyond (also on Blue Storm Music). In case you've forgotten, Heckstall-Smith was there when the British blues boom happened in the first half of the 60s. He was for a time with the Graham Bond Organization and then with John Mayall's Bluesbreakers. This saxophone player never was a major headliner, but his eclectic tastes were well suited to the type of music being made at the time, a mixture of jazz, blues and rock (in different proportions, depending on the band). Blues and Beyond is aptly titled. Though the music can safely be called blues-rock (or some type of British blues), there is a marked jazz flavour to be found, especially in the inventive solos of Heckstall-Smith. The list of friends is impressive in that it brings back to the spotlight many other important actors of the 60s blues boom.Guests include Paul Jones (from Manfred Mann), Clem Clempson (from Humble Pie) and Gary Husband (from Level 42), as well as other ex-members of Graham Bond's and John Mayall's bands: drummer Jon Hiseman, Peter Green (who went on to form Fleetwood Mac), Jack Bruce (who founded Cream) and Mick Taylor (who then went on to play guitar in an obscure band called The Rolling Stones), as well as John Mayall himself. Most songs were written by Heckstall-Smith with lyrics from co-producer Pete Brown (yes, the guy who wrote so many Cream classics). In spite of so many big names from the past, the music is remarkably fresh and inventive to our ears, accustomed to a more "formatted" sound. To Heckstall-Smith and his friends, there really aren't any musical categories. You can (and you frequently do) take inventive, almost free form solos in the middle of a groove-based simple blues song. In fact, the record has the same vitality of those revelatory 60's records … and the same shortcomings. Though the musicians are peerless, the singing is, well, pretty average, with the notable exception of Jack Bruce's contribution (a somewhat psychedelic "Hidden Agenda"). If you like jazz-rock as well as blues, you'll be pleased by this CD. At the very least, those curious to hear how to effectively showcase the saxophone in (sometimes heavily) electrified blues should give this record a good listen and learn quite a few things in the process.

In hindsight, the first three albums Little Feat released at the start of the 70s are considered classics. As a matter of fact, they were critically acclaimed, but all three were commercial failures upon their release. Actually, the group briefly split up after the release of the second album, Sailin' Shoes, and when the band members reconvened, they had lost their original bassist for good. When the fourth LP appeared, it was considered by both band and management as a make-or-break release. Luckily, the heavy touring behind the third album, the now-classic Dixie Chicken, had established the band as a great live act, and the public was there, awaiting their next record. From then on, the band's success was never in doubt, until Lowell George's death, at the end of the decade. The live double CD Late Night Truck Stop (on NMC Music, a British label) includes Little Feat's complete set at Ebbetts Field, in Denver on the night of July 19th, 1973, with Dixie Chicken in the stores, but their future still uncertain. The band is playing with lots of energy, with every song is a winner here. It included material from their then current release ("Two Trains," "Fat Man in Bathtub," "Walkin' All Night," "Dixie Chicken" and their cover of the Allen Toussaint-penned "On Your Way Down") and selections from their first two LPs. There was also an early version of "The Fan" (to appear on the breakthrough Feats Don't Fail Me Now) and a two-part "Got No Shadow," a song that to my knowledge they never recorded in the studio. While the musicianship on this double disc is not in question (the rhythm section especially stands out) and the sound quality is acceptable (strangely, some songs come out better from my speakers), I must say that I was disappointed at the amount of dead air to be found here (including some lengthy and anti-climactic tuning up just before the acoustic version of "Willin'"). Also, the way the tracks are delimited is quite clumsy. While most songs have some kind of a spoken intro, systematically these intros are to be found at the end of the previous track rather than at the beginning of the song being introduced. But the fact that the set is a complete one and considering the year the show was taped, this is a worthy addition to any southern rock fan's collection.

For many blues fans, James Solberg's name is forever associated to that of Luther Allison's, and for good reasons. For most of the '90s, at a time when the Europe-based Allison started enjoying the benefits of a renewed interest in his music, whenever he chose to tour in North America, he did so with James Solberg as his trusted sidekick / musical director / band leader. (Solberg and Allison first worked together in the mid-'70s). Ironically enough, when Solberg tried to make for himself as a recording artist, he had to do the same thing as his friend/boss ... go to Europe. (Solberg never emigrated like Allison had done years before, but he did record for European label)s. In 1996, for his second album, he recorded One Of These Days for the Atomic Theory label, an album that was well received by the critics who heard it. But unless you bought it by the stage at one of Solberg's gigs, it was nearly impossible to find in North America. The success of his following album, L.A. Blues (see May 1998 review), created such a demand for it over here that it was picked up by Ruf (itself a German company, but with better distribution in America). Now, five years later, we North Americans finally get to hear One of these Days, as it too is now being reissued by Ruf. It's a strong, solid effort, showing (especially in its first half) a good diversity of styles. Though his voice doesn't have much range, Solberg is not afraid to push it to the max, expressing a wide spectrum of emotions to match the mood of the songs. To my ears, last year's The Hand You're Dealt (reviewed in May 2000) included stronger material, although the album being reviewed here includes a powerful track, "Nobody to Blame," with dual slide guitars (Solberg is helped out by Charlie Bingham) and gloomy vocals. It's a song which is sure to become a classic around this reviewer's house. Let's just say that this beauty helps compensate for the sonorous thud produced by the umpteenth version of "Cheaper to Keep Her," as it falls flat. All in all, this is indeed a very good album. I only feel that coming as it does on the heels of last year's disc, this older album is somewhat relegated in its shadow.

If there was one weakness to Columbia/Legacy's three-CD retrospective of Taj Mahal's career, In Progress & In Motion 1965-1998, which came out in 1998, it was that it overwhelmingly favored the Columbia years over the Taj-man's records for the Warner or Private Music labels. (The recent single volume, The Best of Taj Mahal, totally ignores everything the man did after he left Columbia). While there exists two poorly planned and confusing overviews of Taj Mahal's work in the '90s for Private Music (Best Of The Private Years and Blue Light Boogie, the latter including many collaborations to various soundtracks and other projects), there was until now absolutely no way to familiarize yourself with his 1976-78 stay at Warner unless you still owned the original LPs released at the time, Music Fuh Ya (Musica Para Tu) from 1976, Evolution (The Most Recent) from 1978 and the soundtrack to the film Brothers (1977) ... until now. Sing a Happy Song: The Warner Bros. Recordings addresses this problem by including the three above-mentioned albums in their entirety, with the additional bonus of seven previously unreleased tracks, recorded live in February 1977. At this time in his career, Taj Mahal was using an eclectic group of musicians known as the International Rhythm Band (or the International Messengers Band), which featured reedman Rudy Costa and percussionist Kester Smith (both still with him, now in the Hula Blues Band) and steel drum virtuoso Robert Greenidge. His music was smooth and jazzy and very groove-oriented, with influences from the rhythms and sounds of Hawaiian, Trinidadian, Caribbean and Polynesian music, as well as the odd reggae bit. The blues was temporarily set aside (though the live part of the CD includes steel drum-driven versions of classics such as "Farther On Down The Road," "Going Up To The Country, Paint My Mailbox Blue" and "Johnny Too Bad"), but it wasn't forgotten. Indeed, Taj Mahal was intent on merging all strains of African-American music, blues included, a good 10 years before the mere concept of World Beat even existed. It all makes for a very interesting listen, full of sunshine and light-heartedness, and big Taj Mahal fans should consider buying this great document. Be warned, though. This is a limited issue only, with 3,000 copies for sale, and then no more, to be found only at

Blues purists may not like them, but The Yardbirds played an important role in the British Blues boom, which itself sparked a renewed interest in the blues in America. And of course, this was the band that successively featured, in the lead guitar role, future major British blues-rock guitar heroes Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page. The Yardbirds Ultimate! (Rhino) is a two-CD compilation that should please blues lovers and '60s rock fans. Arranged chronologically, with excellent sound and very entertaining and thorough liner notes by blues collector Cub Koda, dozens of photos sprinkled throughout the 52-page booklet and complete discographical information, it is assuredly a labor of love. With 52 tracks (including three solo cuts from singer Keith Relf, and a few relative rarities), it also gives you plenty of music for your money. Blues fans will especially like the first CD and a half, corresponding to the tenures of Eric Clapton and Jeff Beck in the band. (Jimmy Page came on board at a time when the band was opting for Peter Grant as a manager, assigning the band to producer Mickie Most, who mostly burdened the band with lightweight pop fluff). The first 12 tracks on CD one were recorded with Eric Clapton. Eight of those are also to be found on his Crossroads four-CD box set. The other four are live renditions, full of racket and noisy guitar work and '60s-quality live sound, but also with plenty of imagination. Hard to believe that there was a time when teenagers were actually turned on by the blues. The rest of CD one and the first half of CD two, with Jeff Beck at the helm and a more confident band behind him, is also a lot of fun, with roughly half the tracks qualifying as blues or R&B-based, along with some of the biggest hits of the band. Even though they were sometimes taking many liberties with the blues, The Yardbirds also reached a point where they could actually improve on blues classics (a case in point, their version of Bo Diddley's "I'm a Man"). Highly recommended.

--- Benoît Brière

Bill Thomas is a Texas transplant now based out of England. Roy Buchanan's former roommate has one of the freshest approaches to the blues to come down that proverbial pike in a long while. Though his is a new name to these ears, he has apparently been around for a long while. In addition to sharing a flat with Buchanan, he put in short stints with the likes of Albert King, Albert Collins and Joe Hughes. He claims that none less than Memphis Slim suggested that he move to Europe and concentrate on being a frontman rather than sideman. Given all that, a great resume does not a great musician make. Spectacular chops, a wonderful voice and great tunes do. Thomas is most certainly a Texan, regardless of where he hangs the sombrero these days. On Ain't No Half Steppin' (Bluetrack), there are tastes of everyone from guitarists Billy Gibbons to Jimmy and Steve Ray Vaughan in his style, and he often reminds of a toned down version of Melvin Taylor or Chico Banks. Vocally, he owes a debt to Luther "Guitar Junior" Johnson. "High Flying Bird" ("...Matchbox blew into town one day/ like a shot from a gun./Now nobody seen or heard/ exactly where that shot came from...") is an extraordinary piece of songsmithing, and a fair representation of what Thomas brings to the date. It's tight and muscular, with a catchy hook, appealing voice and guitar. As packages go, his is extremely attractive. "Francine" has a hypnotic guitar pattern that works almost against the vocal lines. 'Almost' is the key, though. Somehow Bill Thomas makes that work throughout. Like a drummer works polyrhythmic patterns to the astonishment of laymen, Thomas weaves seemingly disparate patterns into a wholly fascinating whole. On the title cut, there is a choppy jazzy motif that benefits from bassist Marion Dolton and drummer Sam Kelly's obvious comfort level with Thomas' penchant for sidestepping cliché. "Keep It" has a dusty trail-meets-reggae backbeat, and "Check It Out" has a wonderfully deceptive laid back groove. Bill Thomas sure does like to move around the blues corral. One of the nicest surprises of the year, this one's highly recommended from these quarters.

 James Montgomery isn't a major figure on the world blues stage. Hell, the average blues fan may not know his name at all, in spite of six albums on major labels. Nowadays, the President of the New England Blues Society has a syndicated radio show ("Backstage With The Blues") that may afford him more name recognition than his recording career has. Given the caliber of his playing, his shadowy presence looms all the more tantalizing. He's as good a harp player as anyone out there, more than a fair vocalist and a strong songwriter.  The former Detroiter has been based out of Boston for the past 30 years, but pays tribute to his Motor City roots on Bring It On Home (Conqueroot). In the liners, he speaks of coming up in Detroit and playing clubs all over town, and of jamming with John Lee Hooker and other legendary figures. He also speaks of James Cotton and Junior Wells serving as mentors in his "fearless" youth. The acoustic cover of Hooker's "Dimples" features Montgomery and Cotton trading licks on harp, Marc Copely on a 1939 National Steel and drummer Marty Richards brushing a trash can. It's a first-class rendition. Cotton also joins Montgomery on the back porch-like "Sinkin' Blues," which allows James the elder a bit more stretching room and showcases Montgomery's chops, as well.  The opening "Sweet Sixteen," one of two tributes to Wells, sets the pace for a set that never lets up, and "Junior's Jump" blows the speakers loose. It's not hard to visualize Montgomery sharing a smoky Detroit stage with Wells. As he points out, Cotton and Wells both called Sonny Boy Williamson their mentor, and Montgomery's superb take on the title tune pays tribute one generation further back. The band energy throughout is high and the chops tight.  Having said that, the highlights are elsewhere. The band's take on "Lovin' Cup" is snaky, primal and on fire, reminding a bit of the energy that Little Charlie & The Nightcats bring to "Poor Tarzan." It rocks, it mellows down easy, and then explodes. This is one of those songs that's meant to be played very loud. Extraordinary doesn't do it justice. It's simply one of the most exciting tunes to make it to these ears this year. The centerpiece, however, is Montgomery's own  "Back On My Knees," a contender for song of the year. It has a feel of back alley danger, with Copley's guitar underscoring Montgomery's vocals and harp. Extremely visual in it's execution, this demonstrates what songs can do without video, when listeners shut their eyes and turn up their ears.  It's a rarity to find a disc with no filler, nothing less than first-rate tunes. This is one of those collections. On "Wedding Ring," for instance, Copley and Montgomery sound for all the world like the best guitar-harp duo this side of Butterfield and Bishop (who I always preferred over Bloomfield). As I said, nothing here is less than first class. Bassist David Hull anchors the set with Richards, and keyboardist Tom West burns. One of the year's 10 best. 

--- Mark E. Gallo

Not often thought of as a center for blues, Norway has produced a blues band that really know how to play in Beautiful Destruction. Soul Hunter (BDSH) opens with some the blues/rock title track, and sets the tone for what is to come. Right from the start it's obvious that these guys are accomplished musicians. Andrew D Lovett is also an excellent song writer, having produced all but one of the ten tracks on the CD. This isn't an album of pure blues, but there is some good music, and some good blues as well. "Political Blues," "Mister Bus Driver" and "I Want To Be Loved" all have a good blues flavour, and you could never guess that this is a band from Norway from listening to these tracks. " Mister Bus Driver" is my absolute favourite --- I just wish the whole album was in this style. This track really shows that this band knows how to play blues. The guitar work from Andrew D Lovett and Oddvar Solheim is excellent, and is well supported by Yngve Mathisen on drums and Martin Viig on bass, both of these band members also helping out with the backing vocals on some of the tracks.

--- Terry Clear

Zydeco's true wild man is Terrance Simien, who has released albums on a number of labels over the years. His live shows are very high energy and his CDs generally capture that same spirit in the studio. The Tribute Sessions (AIM) is a bit of a departure in that Simien uses a sparser sound and comes across as more restrained. But that's OK, as there's a lot of good stuff here. As the title indicates, Simien respectfully pays tribute to many of the zydeco, soul and rock artists who have influenced him over the years. Most of the songs are introduced by a spoken narrative from Simien about that artist and what each man's influence meant to his career. The stories are fascinating and generally very touching. Among the performers whose songs he covers are Canray Fontenot, Rockin' Sidney, Sam Cooke, Clifton Chenier, Rick Danko, John Delafose, Rockin' Dopsie, Bob Marley, Beau Jocque and A.P. Carter. Surprisingly, it's the non-Zydeco songs that are the strongest, most notably his version of "Rome Wasn't Built In A Day." I can imagine that the way Simien performs this number is like if Sam Cooke had really been born on the bayou. Danko's "Makes No Difference" and Marley's "Waiting In Vain" are other highlights. For a more traditional Creole sound, there's a good cover of Fontenot's "Les Barres De La Prison." This is a very nice album. For repeated listening or for your next party, you may want to edit out the narratives. But be sure to listen closely to Simien's stories the first time around.

I was very suspicious of the latest CD from Chris Thomas King, The Legend of Tommy Johnson (21st Century Blues). The notes on the front and back of the disc say 'Inspired in part by the movie O Brother Where Art Thou?' I immediately assumed that this album was going to be some crass attempt to cash in on the popularity of the Coen Brothers movie from earlier this year and its subsequent best-selling soundtrack album. But it's worse than I could have imagined. This atrocity jumbles together too many different styles in a way that makes it painful to the listener. At the front of the CD are half a dozen acoustic, traditional numbers that were recorded in a much too sterile environment. The sound is tinny and cold. Only the number on which Thomas King's guitar is accompanied by piano and drums, "John Law Burned Down The Liquor Sto'," has any punch to it. It's all downhill from there, as Thomas King goes electric on the next three cuts and gets too histrionic and rocked out. Finally, the album concludes with a group called The Voodoo Dolls doing two cuts, one a reprise of "O Brother, Where Art Thou?," done surf style, followed by a bad rock ballad, "Spread The Glory." What's frightening is that the cuts from The Voodoo Dolls might be considered to be the best stuff on the album. Pass on this one. Instead, be sure to see this excellent movie and get the genuine soundtrack album.

--- Bill Mitchell

It's been three years since the powerful pipes of Tracy Nelson were heard on the now classic 1998 collaboration Sing It! with Marcia Ball and Irma Thomas, and five years since her last solo release. From a personal standpoint, that's far too long to wait for something new from this entertaining singer. Ebony & Ivory (Eclectic Records) is the name of this very personal and eclectic project from one of the most soulful voices to adorn either the blues, soul, country or gospel genres. This latest effort opens with a mellow gospel-infused number, "You Will Find Me There," that features a booming bass singer who in actuality is Tracy's hair dresser and also appears on several other tunes. The first of two versions of "Strongest Weakness" follows with the swirling organ of Reese Wynans and the hottest horn section known to man, The Memphis Horns, stealing the spotlight just a little. The alternate take heard later on this album is good, but this version is my first choice. Marcia Ball's slick vocals and driving piano are along for the ride for a country-ish duet with Tracy entitled "Got A New Truck" that cooks with a tasty Nashville flavor. The Mose Allison penned "How Much Truth" gets a jazzy after hours treatment that may evoke a deep thought or two. "Still Not Out Of The Woods" is an upbeat number with a duel keyboard attack of Jimmy Pugh on piano and Reese Wynans once again on organ. The lone original, "I Must Be Crazy," is autobiographical according to the liner notes written by Nelson, and is followed by what is the prettiest piece on this album, "Even Now," a very moving self-reflecting type of tune. "Quicksand" is a hard driving number that allows both the band and the backing vocalists to stretch their legs. This is Tracy's 20th recording. Although not a hardcore blues album (being eclectic in nature), there is enough peppered throughout to qualify it as a blues record. Hell, I could listen to this lady sing nursery rhymes just for the sheer pleasure of listening to her magnificent voice. Tracy Nelson has delivered another well-produced and arranged album of her baring her vocal soul once again. But then again, isn't that usually the case with her albums? Give this one a close listen.

--- Steve Hinrichsen

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