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October 2021

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Order these featured albums today:

Carolyn Wonderland

Al Basile

Bette Smith

Duke Robillard

Mick Kolassa - If You Can't Be Good

Mick Kolassa - Wasted Youth

Ronnie Earl

Malaya Blue

Lisa Mann


Carolyn WonderlandCarolyn Wonderland has been around the Texas blues scene her entire career, with more than ten albums and singles to her name but never on a "major" blues label. That changes with her latest, Tempting Fate, being released by Alligator Records. If you haven't yet boarded the Carolyn Wonderland bandwagon, now's the time to do so. Tempting Fate is a solid collection of ten songs, a mix of originals and well-chosen covers, showcasing Wonderland's strong vocals and Texas-style guitar playing.

Wonderland shows right away that she's a bad-ass guitar player to be reckoned with on the intro to the album opener, "Fragile Peace And Certain War," with a heavy-duty slide guitar intro before launching into an up-tempo social commentary of many of the problems facing the world right now. The guitar playing remains frantic over a driving drum beat. She then shows her 'Texas guitar' side on the country-ish "Texas Girl And Her Boots," describing every pair of boots she owns and each one's purpose. Marcia Ball joins the band here on piano.

Wonderland's voice is especially strong on her original "Broken Hearted Blues," a mix of old-style women's blues with a contemporary blues sound. Great guitar solo, too. We hear Red Young providing the piano accompaniment on the mid--tempo blues "Fortunate Few." "Crack In The Wall" is a slow, country number that one might think doesn't fit in here, but it does as she packs plenty of emotion into vocals while Cindy Cashdollar contributes very fine lap steel guitar.

Wonderland opens John Mayall's funky blues "The Laws Must Change" with a strong guitar solo and adds even more scintillating instrumental mastery later on. I never tire of hearing the sound of an accordion, and we hear from Jan Flemming on the cajun blues of "Honey Bee."

"On My Feet" is a jazzy blues that changes the mood completely, with nice piano from Young before Wonderland comes in with a nice blues shuffle version of Bob Dylan's "It Takes A Lot To Laugh, It Takes A Train To Cry," sharing vocals with Jimmie Dale Gilmore.

Wrapping up this nice 10-song package is a version of the Grateful Dead's "Loser." It has kind of an old cowboy song vibe. Not sure whether I care much for this one, but I'll keep listening to see if it grows on me.

Thanks to Alligator for getting Ms. Wonderland more into the blues mainstream. Tempting Fate is a solid album, and I know we are all eager to hear what's next from this wonderful performer.

--- Bill Mitchell

Al BasileNew England blues stalwart Al Basile is back with another album, B's Testimony (Sweetspot Records), another fine collection of original tunes in his discography of several dozen albums released either in his own name or with artists such as Roomful of Blues and Duke Robillard, Considered one of the best horn players in the business, with his preferred instrument being the cornet, he assembled an all-star band for this album with Bruce Bears (keyboards), Brad Hallen (bass), Mark Teixeira (drums), Doug James (sax), "Doc" Chanonhouse (trumpee) and Kid Andersen (guitar). All 13 songs are Basile originals, and he continues to show that he's one of the more innovative songwriters around. While he doesn't have a powerful voice, his vocals are good enough for the material.

It's a tight band, full of big horn sound, and that would be fine in its own right. But the addition of Andersen on guitar, recorded remotely during the pandemic, is what puts the album over the top. The head of the Greaseland studios in California is a genius in many aspects of the music biz, and his guitar solos and fills are spectacularly good.

All 13 cuts are strong, but among my favorites include the up-tempo blues "If All It Took Was Wishing," with Andersen tearing it up on his axe and Basile adding a nice muted cornet solo. Shy Perry joins Basile on vocals on the slow, soulful blues "One Day At A Time." Ms. Perry is a very fine singer who deserves more acclaim in the blues world.

"When The Girl Says Yes" is a cheerful, soulful blues, with Basile sounding better vocally while Bears comes in with a very fine organ solo and the horns provide a big wall of sound. Andersen is showcased on the stop-time blues "I Oughta Be Your Monkey," also providing a stirring guitar solo on the mid-tempo blues shuffle "Through Thick And Thin." Bears shines on piano here while Basile comes in with another strong muted cornet solo.

With such a rich discography there are plenty of ways to hear Basile's music, and B's Testimony is a nice addition to his catalog.

--- Bill Mitchell

Bette SmithThe best way to describe Bette Smith is to call her a vocal hurricane. The Brooklyn native pulls out all the stops on her most recent album, The Good The Bad & The Bette (Ruf Records), a conglomeration of blues, rock, and soul that grabs you from track one and doesn’t let go until track ten.

This sparkling set was recorded at Water Valley, Mississippi at Dial Back Sound with Matt Patton and Bronson Tew of Drive-By Truckers producing and playing bass and drums, respectively. Other luminaries appearing in support include Jimbo Mathus, Luther Dickinson, and Henry Westmoreland of the Squirrel Nut Zippers.

Opening with Lonnie Shields’ “Fistful of Dollars,” Smith and the rhythm section (the aforementioned Tew and Patton) and Westmoreland on horns all lock into a seamless groove that sets a high bar for the remainder of the album. “Whistle Stop,” a song Smith wrote in tribute to her late mother, is a fine piece of southern soul, on which she really pours her heart into the vocal.

The storming rockers “I’m A Sinner” (featuring Mathus on guitar) and “I Felt It Too” show Smith’s vocal versatility, and “Signs and Wonders,” with guitar from Dickinson, marries funk, country, and gospel with satisfying results.
The gritty, funky rocker “Human,” was inspired by Smith’s dog, who helped her get through difficult times.

“Song For A Friend” is a sweet soul number with fine background vocals, and Smith really tears into the Dexateens’ “Pine Belt Blues,” a churning blues rock track. Eddie Hinton’s “Everybody Needs Love” is an inspirational soul anthem in Smith’s capable hands, with a wondrous choir of backing vocalist (including Drive-By Trucker Patterson Hood).

On the stunning closer, Willy Vlautin’s “Don’t Skip Out On Me,” Smith blows the doors off with a powerful vocal with superb musical accompaniment.

Bette Smith’s The Good The Bad & The Bette is a powerful set of blues, soul, and roots music that should put this fine singer in the spotlight if there’s any justice in the world.

--- Graham Clarke

Duke RobillardOn his latest album, Blues Bash (Stony Plain Records), Duke Robillard was loooking to “make a real blues album like the ones that make me want to play the blues in the first place back in the late ’60s,” as he explains in the liner notes. To this purpose, he enlisted a host of familiar faces --- keyboardist Bruce Bears, drummer Mark Teixeira, bassists Jesse Willams and Marty Ballou, with the early Roomful of Blues horns (Rich Lataille, Greg Piccolo, Doug James, Al Basile), Sax Gordon, Mark Hummel, Robert Welch, Mark “Mr. B” Braun, Marty Richards, and guest vocalists Chris Cote and Michelle Willson --- to lend a hand, and the results more than meet the Duke’s expectations.

Cote is featured on three songs, Ike Turner’s riproaring “Do You Mean It” (punctuated by fierce Robillard fretwork), Roy Milton’s jumping boogie burner “What Can I Do,” and the funky shuffle “You Don’t Know What You’re Doin’.”

Ms. Willson only guests on one track, but it’s a good ‘un, Helen Humes’ saucy “You Played On My Piano.” Robillard sings on four tracks, the Windy City blues “No Time” (aided most ably by Hummel’s harmonica), Al King’s “Everybody Ain’t Your Friend,” a nice urban track featuring the horns and a terrific guitar solo, the stomping “Ain’t Gonna Do It,” propelled by Mr. B’s driving piano, and the shuffle “Give Me All The Love You Got.”

Robillard also includes a pair of fantastic instrumentals. The swaggering shuffle “Rock Alley” features dynamite interplay between Robillard, Bears, and the horns, particularly Piccolo, who rips off a great solo. The album closes with the ten-minute after-hours slow burner “Just Chillin’,” with superb contributions from Robillard, Bears, and Piccolo that could have gone on another ten minutes.

I’ve listened to a lot of Duke Robillard’s recordings over the years (he was one of the first blues guitarist I actually saw in person at the 1987 New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, playing with the Fabulous Thunderbirds) and Blues Bash is my new favorite. It is truly “a real blues album” in every way, and one that blues fans need in their collection.

--- Graham Clarke

Mick KolassaI’ve fallen behind with my reviews due to family and work issues. WAAAYYYY behind, so it was inevitable that I would end up with consecutive releases from one artist or another for review. Mick Kolassa is the first artist to fall in that group, I received his release If You Can’t Be Good, Be Good At It! (Endless Blues Records) …… well, never mind how long ago I received it and it was coming up in my stack to review. A few weeks ago, his Wasted Youth (also Endless Blues Records) CD arrived in the mail, so let’s take a look at both of these releases.

If You Can’t Be Good, Be Good At It! was released last year and it reunites Kolassa with Jeff Jensen, who co-produced with Kolassa and plays most of the guitar on the 11 tracks. The core band includes Bill Ruffino (bass), John Blackmon (drums/percussion), Rick Steff (keys) and Eric Hughes (harmonica), with appearances from a host of musical friends (David Dunavent – guitar/backing vocals, Tullie Brae – backing vocals, Marc Franklin – trumpet, Kirk Smothers – sax, Brad Webb – slide guitar, Alice Hasen – violin, Kern Pratt – electric guitar, Willie “Too Big” Hall – drums, and Weston Caldwell – percussion).

The wide-ranging set blasts off with the spunky, Memphis-flavored “I Can’t Help Myself,” a striking redo of James Taylor’s “Lo and Behold” (featuring Webb’s otherworldly slide guitar), and the energetic title track, fueled by the horn section and Jensen’s rocking fretwork. The slow blues “A Good Day For The Blues” describes the sort of day, or life, for which the music is tailor-made, and the jaunty “I’ve Seen” finds Kolassa reflecting on the many things he’s seen and the thing that he longs to see. “I Gotta” strikes a swinging Crescent City groove.

Kolassa also pens a jazzy tribute to his beverage of choice in “Sweet Tea,” settles in with his lover on the splendid slow burner “Slow and Easy Love,” and with the mid-tempo rocker “Good Night Irene” (not the one you’re thinking of), he dedicates a tune to a friend from Down Under. Kolassa also offers a moody cover of Howlin’ Wolf’s “Who’s Been Talking,” with Hall sitting in on drums, and wraps up with the moving “She Kept Her Head Up,” a tribute to his daughter, Kassie, who’s battling Triple Negative Breast Cancer. A rock-solid blues album from one of the most dependable blues artists currently practicing, If You Can’t Be Good, Be Good At It! has plenty to satisfy blues fans.

Mick KolassaKolassa’s latest release, Wasted Youth (Endless Blues Records) comes on the heels of many changes in his life. Kolassa lost his wife and several friends over the past year, and the events of the past year inspired many of the songs on the album as he reflects on his losses and the need to not take anything in life for granted. Many of the same artists who contributed to his previous effort --- Jensen, Rufino, Steff, Brae, Hughes, Franklin, Smothers, Webb, and Hasen all return --- and there are also contributions from Brandon Santini (harmonica), Albert Castiglia (slide guitar), Victor Wainwright (piano) and guitarists David Julia and Anthony Paule.

The rollicking opener “Throw Away These Blues” finds Kolassa encouraging us to keep the faith even when things go wrong, while the title track is a somber reminder that most of us don’t appreciate being young until we’re old, and “It Hurts To Let You Go” mournfully addresses the inevitability of loss in life, but the funky “I’m Missing You” lifts the tempo and the mood somewhat. “Easy Doesn’t Live Here” (with Julia on guitar) contemplates the ups and downs of building a long-lasting relationship, and the horn-driven “I Can’t Get Enough” features Paule on guitar.

Wainwright guests on piano for the slow blues “Feeling Sorry For Myself,” as Kolassa reflects on the events of the previous year, and the jazzy “Touching Bass” deals with separation, with Jensen, Steff, and Rufino all shining on this track. Meanwhile, “Darkness To Light” is an intriguing medley of three of Kolassa’s favorite songs (War’s “Slippin’ Into Darkness,” The Youngblood’s “Darkness Darkness,” and the old folk song “Wayfaring Stranger”) with outstanding contributions from Jensen and Hasen.

Santini’s harmonica highlights “My Mind Doesn’t Wander,” a mid-tempo blues, while Kolassa reflects on his recent move to Memphis on the slow burner “Pieces of My Past.” On the acoustic closer, “Edge of a Razor,” Kolassa, Jensen, and Castiglia join forces on guitar.

I would be hard-pressed to determine which of these two albums I prefer. Both have the usual qualities of a Mick Kolassa album --- smart songwriting, excellent musicianship, and a great mix of blues styles. Actually, I would say just grab If You Can’t Be Good, Be Good At It! and Wasted Youth at the same time and double your pleasure. You can thank me later.

--- Graham Clarke

Ronnie EarlI’ve been listening to Ronnie Earl & the Broadcasters for over 30 years and I think most would agree that there’s always been an intensely spiritual component to his guitar playing, which is equal parts soul, blues, and jazz. His albums always make for compelling listening and there’s always something new to be heard each time you listen. Rise Up (Stony Plain Records) was recorded in two phases. The “studio” material was recorded at Earl’s home in March of 2020 as Earl recovered from back surgery, and the “live” portion was recorded at Daryl Hall’s House Club in January of 2019.

Rise Up is chock full of memorable moments as Earl and his longtime bandmates (keyboardist Dave Limina, drummer Forrest Padgett, bassist Paul Kochanski) reflect on a variety of topics including the recent social unrest (the slow blues instrumental “Blues For George Floyd” and the narrative “Black Lives Matter”). On “Navajo Blues,” Earl acknowledges the brutal treatment of Native Americans, and mixes in a couple of inspirational tunes that also reflect on current times, with the moving acoustic opener “I Shall Not Be Moved” and Bob Dylan’s “Lord, Protect My Child,” which teams Earl, Limina and singer Diane Blue magnificently.

Blue also sings on the funky “Higher Love,” Lil Green’s “In The Dark,” Eddie Taylor’s “Big Town Playboy,” and Magic Sam’s “All Your Love.” However, her standout performance on the album (at least to these ears) is her soulful, gritty read of Fenton Robinson’s “You Don’t Know What Love Is,” recorded at Daryl’s House to a most appreciative audience. She has proven to be a fine addition to the band over the past few albums and a perfect complement to Earl’s guitar.

Earl also pays tribute Albert King (“Albert’s Stomp”), Lucky Peterson (a ten-minute “Blues For Lucky Peterson” that could have gone on for ten more minutes), and guitarist David Bromberg (“Talking To Mr. Bromberg”). Meanwhile, Limina gets to strut his stuff prominently on B3 (Jimmy Smith’s “Blues For J”) and piano (Ahmet Ertegün’s classic “Mess Around”).

Rise Up is an inspired nearly 80-minute foray into the world of blues and jazz from one of the best guitarist in any genre currently practicing. Every release from Ronnie Earl & the Broadcasters is sheer listening pleasure.

--- Graham Clarke

Malaya BlueUK blues singer/songwriter Malaya Blue collaborates with Grammy winner Dennis Walker on her third studio release, Still (Blue Heart Records). Blue and Walker are joined on this 12-song set by guitarist Nat Martin, keyboardist Stevie Watts, drummer Mike Horne, and bassist Eddie Masters, as well as Robert Cray bassist Richard Cousins and pianist Sammie Ashford. Blue had a hand in composing 11 of the tracks, six with Walker. The album format is similar to the old LP format, with two distinctly different “sides” divided between six deep soul tracks (“Still Side”) and six rousing blues songs (“Blue Side”).

The title track opens the disc. A soulful ballad co-written by Cousins (who also plays bass on the track), it was originally intended for a Robert Cray album, but for all practical purposes it’s a Malaya Blue song now. She practically owns it after this performance. Next is the greasy funk of “Down To The Bone” and “It’s A Shame,” a mid-tempo track with a light melody that belies the heartbreak in Blue’s vocal. “Love Can Tell” has an upbeat melody and funky backdrop, and Blue pulls out all the stops on the emotional, gospel-flavored “Why Is Peace So Hard?” The “Still Side” concludes with the sweet “Love Of Your Life,” with Blue backed by Watts’ piano.

The “Blue Side” begins with “Kiss My Troubles Away,” an up-tempo swinging blues rocker. “Settle Down Easy” is a smoldering R&B-flavored ballad and “Down To The Bottom” is a smooth slow burner about finding love again. “These Four Walls” picks up the pace as Blue reflects on moving on from a tough relationship, “I Can’t Be Loved” is a strong piano-driven ballad written and performed by Blue and Ashford, and the closer, “Hot Love,” is a taut rocker that picks up the pace and the mood considerably to wrap things up.

Malaya Blue is a talented vocalist with a lot of soul and range. With a strong set of songs and superlative musical support, she really hits her stride with Still, a great listen for blues, soul, and R&B lovers.

--- Graham Clarke

Lisa MannLisa Mann’s latest effort, Old Girl (JayRay Records), is a five-song EP that will give listeners a fine snapshot of the formidable talents of this singer/bassist. A 20-year vet of the music scene, Mann is a two-time BMA nominee for her bass playing skills, a winner of the Blues Blast Sean Costello Rising Star Award, and she’s won multiple awards from the Cascade Blues Society and is a member of the Oregon Music Hall of Fame. Her latest release features four originals penned by Mann with one cover.

The mid-tempo title track opens the disc, and it deftly mixes country and soul as Mann reflects on being a middle-aged lady facing life in a youth-focused world. The track features nice support from guitarist Jason Thomas and Louis Pain on B3. Next up is the amusing “It’s The Monkeys Or Me,” based on a true story told to Mann by a friend, and “Everybody’s Making Money,” a frank look at the everyday struggles facing musicians as they deal with the business.

The album’s lone cover is a tribute to Sister Rosetta Tharpe, as Mann covers her “That’s All,” that serves as a plea for love and equality for everyone. Mann’s bass playing is particularly strong here and the instrumental work on the track is excellent. The album closes with the gospel-flavored “Around Here,” as Mann acknowledges those local muses who have influenced her music and her career over the years.

While it would have been nice to have had more of Old Girl to enjoy, listeners will certainly look forward to what’s ahead for Lisa Mann, based on these five fine performances.

--- Graham Clarke

SunnyslidersThe Sunnysiders, a blues duo (Boris Hrepić Hrepa – vocals/guitar/bass/harmonica and Antonija Vrgoč Rola – vocals) from Croatia, recently celebrated their 10th anniversary by releasing their fourth album, The Bridges (Dancing Bear), which features guest appearances from several of their friends from Croatia and from other countries all over the world. The Sunnysiders were formed in 2010 and won the second Croatian Blues Challenge, earning them a trip to the 27th I.B.C, where they made it to the semifinals.

The ten songs featured on The Bridges were all written by the Sunnysiders and provide an engaging look at the blues. The rollicking opener, “Crossroads Of Your Own,” features soaring electric and slide guitar from fellow Croatians Denis Makin and Davor Hačič Hutch, respectively. The storming “When You Come So Near” features French blues rocker Manu Lanvin on electric guitar, and the haunting “Tiny Soul” (about a couple and their dying baby) features the Italian blues artist Lorenzo Piccone on lap steel. Meanwhile, “Blockstop” is a rocking blues with Hrepa’s growling vocal, electric guitar from Jerry T. and sax from Eric Jemms (of Jerry T. and the Black Alligators).

The lilting “Flogging A Dead Horse” mixes the blues, rock, and a touch of pop as the Croatian band Neno Belan & Fiumens handle the music and Hrepa and Rola focus on vocals. “You’re Not That Good For Me To Cry” is a powerful blues ballad (inspired by Rola and Hrepa’s kindergarten-age daughter’s love triangle) with Croatian guitarist Yogi Lonich adding some soaring leads, and “Hood In The Face” is the true story of a car accident the band was involved in (this track features the Sunnysiders regular bandmates, Hans – electric guitar, and Medo – drums).

The harrowing, mostly-acoustic blues “No Pockets In The Grave” includes appearances from Purple Johnny (vocal) and Electric Dan (electric guitar) of the Detroit Groove Gang, while the jaunty “Not The One Of Those” features the duo’s fellow countrymen Zoran Čalić (electric/slide guitar) and Krešo Sonny Boy Oremuš (harmonica).

The album closer, “Heaven Blues Band,” a Delta-flavored tribute to the dear, departed blues musicians, finds the Sunnysiders joining up with guitarist Hutch and England’s Norman Beaker Trio.

The vocal combination of Hrepa and Rola works really well, sort of a sand and silk combination. And the songwriting and music throughout is just wonderful. The Sunnysiders’ mix of American traditional blues with rock, pop, and European sensibilities is a heady mix indeed. Blues fans should check out The Bridges.

--- Graham Clarke

Stevie JStevie J Blues continues to be a workhorse in the studio. Over the past 18 months, the Jackson, Mississippi-based blues man had worked relentlessly, releasing a pair of albums (his own Quarantined and Urban Ladder Society’s The Summit), along with a fine tribute to the late Jackie Neal and multiple singles for several Mississippi-based blues and soul acts. Presently, he’s working on a new album, Soul of a Man, for 2022 release, and recently issued the first single from that recording, “Big Boy Drawls,” a tasty slice of blues, R&B, and funk about dusting one’s self off from a failed relationship and getting back into rotation as soon as possible.

One of the things that I’ve always enjoyed about Stevie J Blues’ brand of blues is that it pays tribute to the old school sounds of blues and R&B while also giving the music a modern quality, appealing to several generations of blues, southern soul, and R&B fans. I’m sure other fans of these genres will feel the same way. Be sure and check out this talented artist’s music as soon as you can.

--- Graham Clarke


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