Blues Bytes

October/November 2004

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Willie Big Eyes SmithThe Electro-Fi president, Andrew Galloway, is a staunch fan of old-time, traditional blues. He has quickly learned how to capture that venerable sound in the studio. For the Electro-Fi debut of Willie ‘Big Eyes’ Smith & the Juke Joint Rockers, Bluesin’ It, a supporting band of Canadian blues all-stars was assembled. Most have either won or have been nominated several times for a Maple Blues Award (Canadian equivalent to the Handy.) By the seasoned sounds they create on this 63-minute CD, you’d swear some Mississippi mud runs through their veins. Having been born in Helena, Arkansas, the Delta is no stranger to Smith. For 15 years, Willie "Big Eyes" Smith, played his traditional "shuffle" style drums for Muddy Waters. Later, Smith established his own niche within the Delta blues tradition by co-founding the Legendary Blues Band with other Waters alumni. Smith has received seven Handy Awards for best drummer. Together these Rockers lay out 14 numbers including originals written by Smith and other band members along with covers from the likes of Mayfield and Dixon. Wisely, Smith’s unexceptional vocals are kept to a minimum. Right from the get-go on "You’re Too Bad," Al Lerman’s harp is burst-ful, and Jack de Keyzer’s guitar notes are precisely delivered. Bob Stroger’s finely-tuned bass and effort-exhibiting vocals bring vision to "Blindman." It has the same funky arrangement as Albert King’s classic "Pretty Woman." Vocally, Smith sounds fine on "River’s Invitation." Although his vocals are low and flat, he occasionally makes them rumble. "Hard Times" will leave you breathless thanks to John Mays’ enchanting vocals and Michael Fonfara’s masterful organ. The band also includes Alec Fraser, Kenny Wayne and Frank Krakowski. Smith gets top billing as his is the biggest name and he plays the role of host. However, the real story here is how well the band gels. Perhaps this is partially due to having performed numerous gigs/CDs with Smith prior to this release. Sure as the hour expires, the songs become too similar and your interest may fade a bit. But Smith passes the blues from one generation to another and this time, its an international affair.

--- Tim Holek
Freelance Journalist/Photographer

Michael PowersMichael Powers has been working over 20 years to become an overnight sensation, as he sings in “Successful Son”, the opening track to his powerful debut disc, Onyx Root (Baryon Records). At first listen, you have to wonder where everyone’s been all those years to let this guy slip through the cracks for so long. At one time, Powers was a member of the Ad Libs (who recorded the cult hit, “Boy From New York City”) and toured with James Cotton while in his late teens. In the ’70s, Powers formed the band Moonbeam, which played together for over a decade between the ’70s and ’80s, opening during that period for artists like James Brown, Bo Diddley, and the Ronettes. After the breakup of the band, Powers toiled for many years as a solo act. He’s a very talented guitarist and he has a distinctive gravelly, world-weary vocal style. On Onyx Root, he’s joined by drummer Steve Jordan, better known for his stint in Keith Richards’ band as well as the Blues Brothers and Sheryl Crow, bassist Neil Jason, who’s played with Paul McCartney, Roxy Music, and Cyndi Lauper, and members of the band Ollabelle. The 13 tracks consists of six original tunes and seven covers. One of the originals is an instrumental, the Latin-tinged “Night in Madrid.” The other originals include the autobiographical “Successful Son,” the Piedmont workout “All Over Town,” the funky “Shimmy Up,” and a touch of Hendrix in “Graffiti.” The covers include reworkings of Howlin’ Wolf’s “Who’s Been Talking” (here titled “Baby’ Got A Train”), a nearly total renovation of Muddy Waters’ “Country Boy,” and Willie Dixon’s “Can’t Quit You Baby.” The other covers are a varied set, with tunes by the Sir Douglas Quintet (the soul classic “She’s About A Mover”), Count Five’s “Psychotic Reaction,” Vera Hall’s “Another Man Done,” and even Leonard Cohen’s “Bird On A Wire.” Powers puts a fresh face on all of the covers. and his originals are also top notch. This is a wonderful debut recording by a bluesman who has definitely paid his dues, and then some. You’ll be hearing more from Michael Powers in the future.

Martha Reeves was arguably the most talented singer in the Motown camp back in the 1960s. She was able to sing R&B, jazz, gospel, and even rock and roll with ease. As the leader of the Vandellas (who she actually had to pay out of her own salary during their heyday), Reeves recorded some songs familiar to anyone with even a passing interest in Rhythm & Blues. Songs like “Jimmy Mack,” “Heat Wave,” “Dancin’ In The Streets," “Honey Chile,” and “Nowhere To Run” have been covered by countless artists, but none came close to the originals. Unfortunately, she wasn’t Diana Ross, so her career was put on the backburner by label owner Berry Gordy (like so much of the Motown female talent of the ’60s in favor of the Supremes), and more or less withered on the vine after her early run of hits for the label. Despite not making the move with Motown from Detroit to L.A., Reeves never stopped performing, mostly on the oldies circuit for most of the past 20 years. As she once stated, “I certainly didn’t go to Motown to learn how to sing and I didn’t leave there in need of knowing how to.” Now, she proves it with a brand new release, Home To You (Itch Records), that shows not only that she hasn’t lost a step, but that’s she better than before. The disc is a mixture of blues and some contemporary R&B sounds. The opener, “Watch Your Back,” is a catchy shuffle that sounds like it could have come from Malaco Records and should get some airplay on a lot of the Southern blues stations, if there's any justice in the world. Reeves had a hand in writing most of the songs (the lone exceptions being a tasty cover of “Jimmy Mack” and a moving rendition of Billie Holiday’s classic, “God Bless The Child”) and she covers modern themes of being in love, falling in love, and falling out of love from a mature point of view. Her voice sounds great and if you’re a fan of Southern soul music or Motown, you should track this one down.

The Joe Richardson Express has released three great CDs since 2000, but their fourth may be their best yet. Aptly titled, Non Stop (Jamey Slane Records) rocks from start to finish. Richardson’s guitar work (electric, slide, acoustic, and even saw on the opening track, “Welcome to Generica“) is as inspired and dynamic as ever, but this is his best effort so far on vocals. Richardson also wrote all the tracks on Non Stop, which includes some real keepers. The aforementioned “Welcome to Generica” is a lament about the lack of individualism in the country these day. The smoldering “Midnight Fever” features one of Richardson’s best vocals and would be a hit in a perfect world. Richardson’s guitar is a highlight on several other tunes, like “Oh My Baby,” “Hear ‘um Cryin’,” “Longview Texas,” and “Backyard Revolution.” The Express rhythm section (Richard Lamm on drums, John Wolfe on bass) does their usual excellent job throughout the disc, even getting a few seconds to shine at the opening of “The Weatherman” before Richardson’s guitar eventually sends the song soaring into the stratosphere. Non Stop is a thrilling ride from start to finish, with some of the best guitar put to disc so far this year, as well as great and sometimes thought-provoking lyrics. If you haven’t experienced The Joe Richardson Express by now, this is a great opportunity to jump on board. The CD is available from

Pete “Big Dog” Fetters is a 20-year veteran of the Detroit Blues scene, playing both acoustic and electric blues guitar. Fetters has performed for two decades, primarily in the East, Midwest, and Southern United States, opening shows for such blues luminaries as B. B. King, Leon Russell, and Delbert McClinton. Over that span, Fetters has released seven albums; the most recent release, on Two Sisters Records, is Deep, an exceptional foray into acoustic blues by an accomplished veteran. Fetters is as skilled guitarist as you’ll hear in either the slide or acoustic vein, and is a warm, engaging vocalist as well. Of the 11 songs featured, Fetters wrote ten of them, including the moody “The Blue Hiway,” the witty “When I Turn 85,” and “Midnight Train,” a stomper with Fetters doubling on harmonica. The lone cover, a nifty take on the old Stephen Foster traditional tune, “Oh Suzanna,” closes out the album in fine fashion. This is a fine CD of acoustic blues by an artist who is very comfortable in the style. Fans of slide guitar and excellent blues songwriting will enjoy this one. Deep can be purchased at

--- Graham Clarke

Dim the lights, light some candles, find someone dear to your heart to snuggle up with, and play them Maria Muldaur’s, Love Wants To Dance (Telarc), which is probably the most romantic album cut in the last 20 years or so. This is a GORGEOUS --- and I do mean GORGEOUS --- collection of ten love songs beautifully presented by one of the smoothest vocalists in the blues today, and done so slickly they will make you slide off your seat. Muldaur picks up right where she left off on last year’s sensational, A Woman Alone With The Blues... Remembering Peggy Lee (reviewed in BluesBytes in July 2003). In her very brief liner notes, Maria states that this record could serve as the soundtrack to a romantic tropical vacation, as it deals with the various aspects of love, such as intimate moments of, longing for, invitation to, mourning lost and in general celebrating. “The Lies Of Handsome Men” starts things off on a mellow note, with a gorgeous arrangement highlighted by Danny Caron’s lush guitar picking, surrounding a tale of self-deceptive awareness that is acceptable because of the benefits to be reaped. Punching things up with a bit of a jazzy beat is a bright cover of Benny Goodman’s “If Dreams Come True.” Muldaur’s warbling vocals are immensely sweet on this number, and are offset handsomely by the swinging violin of Joe Craven for this story of wishful longing. Paul Williams’ “Love Dance” is in actuality the title track that grooves to slow samba-ish back beat for seven plus minutes while Maria seduces you with her silky crooning, and the sexy sax of Jim Rothermel lulls you into a state of total relaxation. Personally, this piece turns me into putty every time I hear it, and is the showpiece of this record. Continuing in the same mood is a splendid rendition of Blossom Dearie’s “Isn’t That The Thing To Do,” that can be best described as an exploration in sensuality as Maria’s vocals on this piece coupled with Caron’s moody stylings will just plain melt you. Is there anything more romantic than moonlight? Probably not, and Muldaur explores both sides of the coin first with Bob Dylan’s “Moonlight,” which came as a bit of a surprise but works famously with a slight retro ’40s swing feel to it, and a few pedal steel licks that work flawlessly on this number that has a devilish playful naughty tone about it. “Lonely Moon” delves into the heartbreak side of things with its story of yearning that passes through your soul via Muldaur’s convincing vocals. Taj Mahal’s lighthearted ”Baby You’re My Destiny” cooks along to a pleasant ragtime rhythm, with Maria chirping the happy lyrics before she turns the blues diva loose for a righteous cover of Harold Arlen’s “I’ve Gotta Right To Sing The Blues.” This lovely work wraps up with “Everyday’s A New Day,” a mid-tempo reggae-influenced number that leaves you wishing this album was longer. Just due surely needs to be given to the rest of the players who contributed their talents, in addition to those aforementioned. The alluring piano lines are provided by Chris Burns, while Seward McCain and Lance Dresser complete the rhythm section on bass and drums, respectively. Overall this record doesn’t miss a trick anywhere. It’s beautifully produced and performed by a journeywoman who is consistently fresh in her approach. So whether or not you are currently in love with someone, Love Wants To Dance should find its way into your collection. Label this one a “don’t miss it.”

--- Steve Hinrichsen

Morning 40 FederationMorning 40 Federation (M80 Music) presents the sleazy, horn-fueled coalesces and the decadence and rule-breaking the Morning 40 Federation's hometown of New Orleans is known for. The songs on their self-titled CD, like "Bottom Shelf Blues," are all about boozing in dimly lit dives far from the daiquiri-serving tourist traps on Bourbon Street. Taking a Long Island iced tea approach to mixing music, Morning 40 snarls in a gutbucket blues style, gets snotty like punk and delivers its brass like juke joint jazz. Oh, and did I mention that the overriding theme of the album's songs is drinking to excess?

There is top-shelf blues at a basement sale price on the Arhoolie budget release, With the Muddy Waters Blues Band 1966, capturing a precious meeting between Big Mama Thornton and Muddy Waters. Basically unrehearsed, the band --- especially Otis Spann at the piano --- really melds with Thornton and produces some great, expansive blues, as on Thornton's "Sometimes I Have a Heartache." There is great double-harmonica when Big Mama and James Cotton both play harp on "Big Mama's Shuffle." Also on the album is "Gimme a Penny," "Big Mama's Bumble Bee Blues," and "Black Rat." Alternate takes of several songs appear as bonus tracks.

Idem Home Video's Swing Era DVD series distributed through Music Video Distributors continues with new titles released in July and August. This excellent, entertaining series adds several new chapters. As I have said before, these are typically titled after one artist, but they often contain as many as a half-dozen different jazz greats and the focus is more on big band and jazz vocalists than the title would suggest. Often these added, non-title artists are more obscure and rarely seen on DVD releases, so I will try to draw attention to those as they are more of interest to collectors... The Dizzy Gillespie DVD for Jivin' in Be-Bop is a post-WW II concert film when Dizzy's big band included John Lewis (piano), Milt Jackson (vibes) and Ray Brown (bass). This is a variety show format that loses nothing in the absence of the MC presentations. Songs include "Salt Peanuts," "Shaw 'Nuff" and more… The Stan Kenton DVD features his classically influenced big band music ("Reed Rapture," etc.) in the setting of a funny film about an expansive, pre-Internet jukebox network where some overwhelmed ladies play each request disc back at HQ. This DVD includes soundies from Charlie Barnet, Les Brown and Claude Thornhill… While the Duke Ellington entry In Hollywood features the widely available Black and Tan (1929) medium-length film, there are altogether eight short and medium-length films with an interesting, detailed look into the vinyl record manufacturing process… Of course, The King of Swing, Benny Goodman gets a Swing Era entry, but this could just as much be said to be an Artie Shaw DVD. Shaw's overview of the big band is the classic jazz answer to Britten's "Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra." This DVD also includes Jimmy Dorsey, Hoagy Carmichael and Jack Teagarden soundies... Before Aretha Franklin had the title "Queen of the Blues," this was bestowed upon Dinah Washington. Her Swing Era is an overview of female jazz vocalists including Martha Davis ("Vipity Vop," etc.), Ruth Brown ("Mama, He Treats Your Daughter Mean," etc.), Faye Adams, Dorothy Dandridge ("Zoot Suit," etc.), Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Mabel Lee, June Richmond, Vanita Smythe ("They Raided the Joint") and Edna Mae Harris… Count Basie Swing Era also has Fats Waller, Louis Armstrong, Joe Turner, Henry "Red" Allen, Gene Krupa, Lucky Millinder and Bill "Bojangles" Robinson… George Shearing Swing Era has Mel Tormé, Slam Stewart Trio, Slim Gaillard, The Bob Cats, Ralph Flanagan and Tony Pastor.

Subtitled 'Duke Ellington for Solo Guitar, Vol. 2.', Steve Hancoff's The Single Petal Of A Rose (Out of Time Music) is the second excellent odyssey of the Ellington oeuvre Hancoff has made with the acoustic guitar. Hancoff has gotten right into Ellington's works and reincarnated them from the inside out as elegant guitar pieces. This collection spans the chronological spectrum of Duke's work from early 1920's material ("The Creeper", "Goin' to Town") to the darker realm of grieving over the loss of his mother in the 1935 and thereafter ("I'm in Another World", "Gypsy Without a Song", etc.) and onto the final period 1951-1974 when trends left Ellington and Ellington turned to serious composition ("Serious Serenade," "Isfahan," etc.). The CD of beautiful instrumental guitar comes with a thick booklet of photographs and notes on the origins of each of the 18 pieces presented. Interestingly, Hancoff never felt it necessary to record any of the obvious choice. Such Ellington hits as "Sophisticated Lady," "In a Sentimental Mood," and "Take the 'A' Train" are not found on either album.

--- Tom Schulte

One can do no better than to quote liner notes to introduce the collection from Lucille Bogan, Shave 'Em Dry (Columbia/Legacy Records)  – "Was Lucille Bogan really the tough, coke-snorting, lesbian hooker she portrayed? Or was she simply a convincing actress, playing the romantic part of an outlaw … At any rate, it was a stance, real or imagined, that allowed her a measure of independence from her feudal surroundings and, at least theoretically, made her less answerable to white authority in 1930s Alabama." These 20 sides, recorded 1933-1935, are as frankly bawdy as anything ever released, even in the blues. The centerpiece, "Shave ‘Em Dry,"
is too vulgar for quoting here, and indeed, one reason for Bogan’s underground popularity and mainstream invisibility is that her songs simply can’t be covered live or in the studio. The playing and singing can, though both her voice and her piano/guitar accompanists are incomparably more energetic than most of her peers. It’s the lyrics that put the Parental Advisory warning on the CD sleeve. Hers is the superblueswoman persona of a sex, drugs, gambling and alcohol addict who is fully aware of the consequences of her vices and keeps going. The blues themes and eccentricities most of us think of as "classic" are mere, pale shadows of Lucille Bogan. Buy it if you’re strong enough.

Dan Treanor and Frankie LeeI think a lot of the Northern Blues Music label, and African Wind from Dan Treanor and Frankie Lee is one of their best releases yet. What we’ve got here is recognizable, American blues performed on somewhat mysterious, handmade African instruments. It beats the PBS blues series documentary of Corey Harris "looking for his roots" all to hell. The truly rewarding superlative about this release is that its recording and instrumentation adds a rich layer of magic into familiar blues, indeed, true blues lovers will find that it adds the magic back into the white bread, homogenized, bland, shallow, sterile and predictable blues that’s been served to us on too many releases and fast food commercials since the last "blues revival." It’s not perfect. The record definitely falls off in novelty and excitement about halfway through, as if the artists couldn’t wait to finish their extraordinary work before releasing it. Nevertheless, thank you, Dan Treanor, Frankie Lee and Northern Blues Music, for giving us our blues back.

Tinsley EllisTo be categorized as either blues or rock for review purposes, Tinsley Ellis needs to settle down and focus on one of the two genres in which he is adept. Let us hope that he does no such thing. The reason he is not better known is that times have changed. A legitimate heir to the Clapton / Page / Beck blues-rock guitar tradition, he happens to have appeared among us a few decades later, when blues and rock share many fans, but are filed in different locations in said fans’ minds. Record stores probably file Ellis under blues, because he records for blues labels, and then shoppers see some middle-aged, longhaired white guy and move on to the next bin, missing out on the opportunity to meet a truly majestic musician. The 12 songs on The Hard Way (Telarc Records) impress by being so thorough. He misses nothing in telling the dozen stories here. Every note, every rest, every line is placed and polished perfectly. Let me go ahead and say it – This is as good as anything Eric Clapton ever released. Further, Ellis is fresh, intense and passionate. As a proselyte of old school guitar rock, he is ideal; he cannot be accused of being passé or burned out. A road player who must spend a lot of time traveling, setting up, writing and arranging his own songs and doing all the other things that take musicians away from their instruments and, just as important, the music of others, Tinsley Ellis proves here that he has a deep, current familiarity with every musical style and trend that catches his ear. Musicians should take The Hard Way as a challenge, a Holy Grail to try to capture in their own productions, and good luck to them in accomplishing that goal! Getting back to the limitations of record store filing systems, it is a shame that there is no easily imaginable area in which the best Joe Cocker, Eric Clapton, Keith Richards, Booker T & the MGs and Paul Simon records could be lumped together. That’s where The Hard Way belongs.

Critics have to read a lot of liner notes, and most of them are annoying. I hate it when local players and friends thank me for support in the same paragraph in which they thank God for one thing or another. The Old Bearded Yid in the Sky and I aren’t close. Liner notes for Rod Price's West Four (Trillium Records), however, are as potent a calling card for the next song as the last song, and that’s saying a lot. Reading Mr. Price’s "Special Thanks" section and brief explanation of inspiration, one immediately acquires a warm respect for him. Listening to West Four’s ten originals and two covers thereafter amplifies that respect into reverence. Rod Price is a slide guitarist, you see, and slide’s a bit restricted, always in danger of sounding, as my sound engineer/guitarist roommate summed it, "samey." Slicing through layers of blues, gospel, rockabilly and soul, this is not "samey." Okay, it is "samey" in that every song seems to use the same amp set- up, but it takes a while to get tired of beautifully articulated intensity. In fairness, Price does switch from electric to acoustic slide a few times here, and the fact that exactly half the cuts feature his vocals lends unarguable, if simple, variety. "Chicago Suite" is hypnotic as Bach fugues can be hypnotic. His singing’s a bit off, from a technical standpoint, but not necessarily from a listener’s standpoint. Again, he’s warm, and he’s singing to his loved ones, not to a microphone. A local vocal comparison from here in Wilmington, North Carolina is Tom Blake, of Tommy B and the Stingers … it is undeniably a pleasure, but one cannot explain exactly why. I’d buy this one and be damn glad I did.

I have a feeling that Duffy Bishop is always "on," that she never leaves that vulgar, outrageous stage persona. To sum same up, this is what Janis Joplin could have been had she had a better band, more physical beauty and fewer vices. Duffy Bishop’s been at it in the Northwest for a long time now, polishing a set list Janis Joplin would have loved. She’s a road warrior who’s been through a few fads and phases over the years, and now she’s right in the middle of naughty, novelty R & B with an ideal backing band. Please, Ms. Bishop, stay here! Ooh Wee (Trillium Records) is a cool release, busy keyboards, thumping bass, drums beaten like baby seals, extremely good and well arranged backing vocals and Brian Setzer-esque hollow body electric guitar copping tenor sax licks give this whole release a genuine R & B sound that trapeze- walks right on the edge of rock without ever quite falling into it, and that’s heap plenty exciting. 15 songs, absolutely no excess fat.

My Kind of Evil (Northern Blues Music ) from JW-Jones Blues Band is slick, California swing blues by way of Canada. A big, tight horn section is a strong subset of the rhythm section, as in the familiar Memphis blues of B.B. King and Bobby Bland, but the drums are louder and more important. There’s a lot of this stuff out there right now. So what, other than Canadian origin, is special about this release?
It’s not the guitar tone, which is Fender-thin and not best for this style. It’s not the vocals, which suffer the same flaw. Is it anything? Well, it might be the fact that the album gradually evolves over the first few songs to a thorough-going party record, Competitive with the better regional frat-to-festival blues acts like Al Copley and Shrimp City Slim, reliant on solid beat and solid set list for gig after gig. Yes, that’s what it is, for starters. Layered onto that is the way it brings that slick, California swing back into the craftsman-like party approach. That’s a good sound. It’s hard to say that it’s innovative, because the players, while very good, break no new ground, but the band’s synthesis does. In fact, harmonica hero Kim Wilson’s work on a few of the songs is more a distraction than a contribution, sinking the act to something less novel than what they accomplish on their own. An interesting record, definitely unique, and an act to keep an eye on. They’re on a road of their own, and well worth following.

--- Arthur Shuey

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