Keb' Mo's Slow Down (Okeh) would qualify as our Pick Hit in most months. This third CD has to rank among his best. Keb' travels much of the same ground as Taj Mahal, so it's always hard to categorize his blues style. Most of his stuff is acoustic with a contemporary twist, and it's not all straight blues. But everything here is top quality. The CD opens with a great uptempo acoustic number, "Muddy Water," with exquisite slide guitar work. For something a bit different, check out the uplifting "A Better Man," which features accordion accompaniment. If you're curious what Keb' would sound like on a rawer, deeper blues, check out "A Letter To Tracy." Then he gets real creative by adding trombone behind a straight country blues on the original "Slow Down." He also likes to cover Robert Johnson songs, and he does a tasteful, sparse version of "Love In Vain." Keb' Mo' is one of the finest young blues artists on the scene today, and Slow Down does nothing to lessen my opinion of him as an artist.
The blues career of Texas-based guitarist Sherman Robertson has always been a big mystery to me. He's released three excellent CDs, and puts on a great live show. So why isn't he better known? Maybe this latest disc, Going Back Home (Audioquest) will finally provide the breakthrough this guy needs. Some pretty high-profile guests, most notably Bill Payne and Richie Hayward of Little Feat, make up the backing band for the CD. Robertson does a very good cover of "Don't Want No Woman," with nice tenor sax work from Joe Sublett. The title cut is a rockin' original much in the style of Albert Collins. Another original, "Fall In Love," crosses his Collins guitar style with a touch of a Little Feat/New Orleans beat. I also liked the slow blues "Looking At The Bottom," written by Theodis Ealey. Come on, blues fans, Sherman Robertson deserves our support. Buy this CD, then be sure to pack your local blues club when he comes to your town.
Records has made its reputation in the blues world with their exhaustive reissue series of
labels like Chess, Duke/Peacock, etc. Now, they've gained the rights to many of the
classic Excello recordings made during the '50s and '60s in Louisiana and Nashville. Look
for lots of good music to be heading our way soon. These two CDs, from Louisiana swamp
blues artists Slim Harpo and Lightnin' Slim, are both
classics; if you don't have them, then by all means get these discs now. The Slim Harpo CD
is a direct reproduction of his Raining In My Heart album, with classics like the
title song, "Blues Hangover" (my old radio theme song!), "I Got Love If You
Want It," and "I'm A King Bee." Rooster Blues from Lightnin' Slim
is equally good, and as deep a blues sound as you'll find. Excello labelmate Lazy Lester
plays wonderful harmonica on these recordings, highlighted by the superb "Rooster
Blues" and "My Starter Won't Work." Absolutely, positively essential!!!
Check It Out, Lock It In, Crank It Up! (Rounder) is a very appropriate title for Beau Jocque & The Zydeco Hi-Rollers' latest CD. This band delivers one of the hottest grooves coming out of Southwestern Louisiana today. Beau Jocque's first couple of CDs have occasionally been unfairly criticized as being too one-dimensional, although I always felt that the power of his music overcame any lack of musical variety. The band's sound has matured considerably on this disc, but that doesn't mean that you won't be ready to hit the dance floor on hearing the first few notes. I particularly like their version of Archie Bell's "Tighten Up"; the Zydeco Hi-Rollers give it a much funkier treatment, and it sounds more like it came out of the swamp. You'll get that "had one too many beers" feeling while listening to this song. The title cut is a typical Beau Jocque song --- a rhythmic, hard rockin' sound. There's also a great version of "Tequila," complete with vocal tracks not found on the original. You've just got to have this CD for your next wild party!
Rod Piazza now fronts one of the best touring bands on today's blues scene. But in 1975 he was just another young harmonica player from Southern California, although already a darn good one. Vintage Live 1975 (Tone-Cool) captured Piazza and his regular band at the time (Larry Taylor, Richard Innes, Hollywood Fats, George Phelps) on a good night in an L.A. night club. The sound quality isn't great, but I've heard a lot worse "live" recordings. The biggest problem is that the vocals are generally too far down in the mix. But the music is worth a little aural inconvenience, as the band romps through ten Chicago blues classics like "Key To The Highway," "Mellow Down Easy," "My Babe," and more.
A major influence on a host of young harmonica players, including the aforementioned Rod Piazza, was George "Harmonica" Smith. Now You Can Talk About Me (Blind Pig) contains all eight tracks originally released in 1982 by Piazza for his Murray Brothers Records, as well as an unreleased song from the same session and five 45 rpm singles recorded either in 1960 or 1965. You can especially hear the influence that Smith had on players like Piazza and William Clarke on the 1960 recording of "Tight Dress." An added treat is the guitar work of Junior Watson on the Murray Brothers cuts, especially a more uptempo version of "Goin' Down Slow." Now You Can Talk About Me is an essential purchase for blues harp fans.
The Santa Cruz/Monterey area of Northern California is one of my favorite vacation spots for the beaches, redwoods, and other natural beauties. After listening to the compilation album Santa Cruz Blues After Hours (BluesTraxx), I think I need to add a tour of the blues clubs of the Monterey Bay area to the agenda of my next trip. The CD contains 14 cuts from 14 different artists, and they're all top quality. Everything flows well from track to track, not always an easy task when putting together this type of album. The best cut opens the album, a swingin' "Straighten Up Baby" from The West Coast Playboys w/ Junior Watson. NiteCry follows with a soulful, horn-dominated "Lesson In The Blues"; vocalist Dave Wilson Jr. is a name to commit to memory for future reference. I'd like to hear more from this band, as well as many of the others on this fine collection.
One of the bands included on the Santa Cruz Blues After Hours disc is Red Beans & Rice, a popular Monterey ensemble. Their loping, good time 'ridin' in my car' tune "Big Automobile" was on the compilation, and can also be found on their own CD Can't Get Enough (White Wolf Productions). These guys play a swinging Chicago-style blues, led by the guitar work of Sherman Lee Davis and the soulful vocals of Terrence Kelly. Davis is featured on a the slow blues cover of James Davis' "Blue Monday." The whole band gets to cook on the closing number, a rousing version of "House Of Blues Lights."
Still another disc from the Santa Cruz area comes from Ben James, and his self-produced Second Life (Starlight Records). James, who handles the vocals, harmonica and guitar, leads his band through 11 blues standards and one original. Dare I say that James has a bit of a Frank Sinatra bluesy voice, especially on the jazzier numbers like "Summertime" and "Stormy Monday Blues." Dirk Damonte (now that's a great name!) plays good piano on all cuts.
I somehow missed out on Deborah Coleman's first Blind Pig CD. After hearing her latest, Where Blue Begins, I'll immediately begin a search to find that previous release. The Virginia native is a strong guitarist and a very soulful vocalist. She's backed here by the Minneapolis-based James Solberg Band, best known as the late Luther Allison's last backing band. Ms. Coleman's best guitar work can be heard on her version of Albert Collins' "Travelin' South." She also does a nice cover of "They Raided The Joint," giving Louis Jordan's blues jumper a much earthier sound. Most of the cuts here are originals, with my favorite being the midtempo shuffle "Walk Your Walk."
Hailing from the same region of the country as Ms. Coleman, but playing a very different style of blues, is North Carolina's Lightnin' Wells. Ragtime Millionaire (New Moon) is an excellent collection of 19 Piedmont-style blues, featuring Wells' beautiful, fingerpicking guitar work. Many of the tunes are traditional songs, like the strong title cut. There are also numbers from other regional artists like Brownie McGhee, Blind Boy Fuller, Elizabeth Cotton, and the lesser-known Turner Foddrell. The highlight of the CD is the intense "Beautiful City," on which Wells plays harp and sings in a 'call and response' style. Ragtime Millionaire might be a little harder to find, but certainly worth the effort for lovers of traditional blues.
Gary, Indiana's The Kinsey Report returns to their original home, Alligator Records, after two major label rock-oriented releases. Smoke And Steel is still hard rockin' blues, as gritty as it's title implies. The strongest blues here is "Down In The Dungeon," a slow tune featuring old bandmate Lester Davenport on harmonica. Guitarist Donald Kinsey plays some mean slide on this number. "This Old City" has a catchy contemporary beat, much like previous Kinsey Report material. "Can't See The Hook" is a little funkier and more downhome than most of the cuts, and features strong guitar from Donald.
Duke Robillard and band were making a swing through western Canada three years ago, and someone had the good sense to record one of their gigs. The result is Stretchin' Out Live (Stony Plain), a dynamite set of Robillard's jump blues sound. The band is in fine form, including the typically stellar sax work of "Sax" Gordon Beadle. Duke does many of his standards, including the original "Too Hot To Handle," "Gee I Wish," and "That's My Life." Nobody can swing like Robillard when he's in the mood, and he certainly was playing some serious blues on this particular night.
Peyton has seemingly been around the Phoenix area longer than most saguaro cacti,
and it's about time we get a CD from his band Midnite Blues. Pretty
Good Love is a good representation of the band's nightclub show, with a mixture of
Chicago blues and swing. There are no originals here, but every song receives a fresh
treatment. "What Makes You Do Me" shows Peyton to be a strong, smoky vocalist,
suitable for a good, late night blues. The whole band really cooks, especially sax player
Chris Skowron, on Willie Dixon's "Hidden Charms." Paul Thomas, a veteran of many
Phoenix bands, contributes very good upright bass on "Mojo Hand." For more info
on Midnite Blues, check out Jimmy's website.
The Phoenix, Arizona blues and folk scene has been blessed for the last decade or so with the presence of Rena Haus. Rena will soon head back to Minnesota, and that area's gain will be our loss. But she's leaving us with Beer To Go (Little Red Hen Productions), a self-produced collection of tunes that she's recorded over the years. It's not all blues, but everything's of very high quality. Ms. Haus has a very pleasing voice, and is an extremely talented songwriter. The bluesy "The Mechanic's Tune" has always been a particular favorite of mine; this is such a good song that in a better world she'd already be rich from the royalties.
There's just not enough hokum music in the world today, so I was real pleased to listen to One Too Many (Fountainbleau Entertainment) by the group of the same name. One Too Many consists of three young cats from New York, and they don't really look like they should be playing this style of blues. But you can tell their hearts are in it, and the acoustic trio does a good job at putting out lots of fun, light-hearted music. My favorite was the uptempo "I Wish I Was In Heaven Sitting Down," featuring great harmonica from regular vocalist Greg Witchel.
The Portland, Oregon area seems to have more of it's share of good acoustic blues duos. Here's another --- Bill Rhoades & Alan Hager. Their new CD, Runnin' & Ramblin' (Burnside Records) is consistently good throughout, with a few Hager originals sprinkled in with old standards from Sonny Boy Williamson I, Little Walter, Tampa Red, and Bukka White.
The cover of Hot & Spicy, from Kansas City's Lawrence Wright & The Outlets, immediately caught my eye with a picture of a big bottle of BBQ sauce. Talk about an image that immediately stirs a carnivore's appetite! Now if they only had made it 'scratch & sniff.' The music inside is pretty tasty, too, with veteran K.C. vocalist Wright and the band putting out a fun, good time blues. There's nothing real original here, and Wright is a little limited in range as a singer, but I bet it's a great band to catch live. I liked the midtempo blues "Duck's lump-D-lump," with nice muted trumpet from "Duck" Warner. Now pass me that rack of ribs, please!
If you happen to be roaming through New York state, and you like a good power trio, then be sure to track down Guitar Pete. Burning Bridges (Tangible Music) is heavy on guitar, played skillfully by Guitar Pete. The strongest cut, and Pete's best guitar work, is on the slow blues "Makes No Sense."
The fine folks at Fantasy Records are continuing to re-release some of the best 1960s recordings from both the Bluesville and Takoma labels. The two Bluesville collections are titled Down The Country Way and Country Roads, Country Days, and contain recordings from both blues greats and obscure artists. The former has cuts from stalwarts like Tampa Red, Blind Willie McTell, Robert Pete Williams, Big Joe Williams, and others, as well as a pair of gems from Clarksdale, Mississippi's blues barber Wade Walton. The latter disc is notable for a pair of numbers from the excellent, yet lesser-known Doug Quattlebaum. Takoma Blues is a real bargain, with 22 cuts of downhome, acoustic field recordings from the likes of Little Brother Montgomery, James Cotton, Dr. Isaiah Ross, Eddie Boyd, Son House, and many more. Takoma Eclectic Sampler, Volume Two is a real mixed bag of different musical styles, from blues artists Bukka White, Michael Bloomfield, and the Fabulous Thunderbirds, to acoustic artists like Norman Blake, Mike Auldridge, and label founder John Fahey.
--- Bill Mitchell
Ecko Records is a Memphis-based company who, in several years of
existence, has assembled an impressive roster of soulful bluesy artists such as Lee Shot
Williams, Bill Coday, the late Ollie Nightingale and the two artists
Malaco Music out of Jackson, Miss. has their own niche in the market. They
specialize in Southern soul and gospel, and these new releases fall into the former
category. These are not blues albums. Each of these three releases represents a different
label distributed by them, but they are all related in one way or another.
--- Alan Shutro
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