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November 1997

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Blind Boys of AlabamaThe Blind Boys of Alabama are the most incredible musical group I've ever seen in person! How could any album expect to capture the power and fervor of their live show? But Holdin' On (House of Blues) sure comes close. The best cuts are when the group just turns it loose on the vocals, especially on an a capella number like "Nobody Knows The Trouble I've Seen." Longtime lead vocalist Clarence Fountain sounds especially inspired on "Down By The Riverside," while Jimmy Carter captures the spirit of their live show with the uplifting "Spirit Of The Lord Is Coming Down." My only complaint with this disc is that on two of the numbers the producer got too heavy-handed with the synthesized strings, thus detracting from the emotional power of this music. But Holdin' On is still one of the best of the year.

Another good gospel collection from House of Blues Music is He Leadeth Me from Cissy Houston. Although daughter Whitney is better known now in music circles, Cissy shows on this album that she's still on top in this family. The rollicking uptempo tune "He Changed My Life" gives Ms. Houston the best opportunity to exercise her vocal chords. Another great number is "Glory Train," written by soul geniuses Dan Penn and Spooner Oldham.

Another of House of Blues Music's rather strange concept albums is Paint It, Blue. Following HOB's previous collection of Janis Joplin songs done by blues and soul artists, this one consists of blues guys doing covers of tunes originally recorded by The Rolling Stones. You might be asking yourself, "What's the purpose?" Blues musicians doing covers of rock songs from a group influenced by blues musicians --- yeah, it is kind of strange. But there's some decent music here, especially Otis Clay's quirky country blues sendup of "Wild Horses." Not surprising, it's the more original and diverse artists who are more successful with the material given to them, such as The Holmes Brothers with "Beast of Burden" and Taj Mahal doing "Honky Tonk Woman." But Junior Well's never seems to get it together on "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction."

Allen Toussaint's New Orleans ChristmasYou can never have too many Christmas albums in your collection, and we've got two more new ones this year. The mere title of A New Orleans Christmas (NYNO Music) should tell you that this one's guaranteed to be an annual favorite, with 13 selections from producer Allen Toussaint and his Crescent City pals. Soul crooner Larry Hamilton starts it off with a nice soulful original called "Christmas This Year." Gospel singer Raymond Myles contributes funky versions of "We Three Kings" and "O Holy Night." The bluesiest number is Wallace Johnson's fine version of Amos Milburn's "Christmas Comes But Once A Year," on which Toussaint plays some mean piano solos.

Roomful of ChristmasOur other holiday special is from New England stalwarts Roomful of Blues, with the aptly named Roomful of Christmas (Bullseye Blues). These guys are naturals at this Christmas music stuff. Singer Sugar Ray Norcia can move gracefully from a growlin' blues to a smooth Andy Williams sound. The album contains 10 tunes, most of them standard blues Christmas songs with a few holiday classics thrown in. Sugar Ray sounds great on "The Christmas Song."

Chess Soul album coverMCA continues their year-long blitz of reissues commemorating the 50th anniversary of Chess Records with three fantastic collections. Chess Soul is a fine double-CD of many of the best soul singers recorded over about a decade, primarily in the 1960s. While better known for their blues artists, Chess actually sold far more records from soul stars like The Dells, Fontella Bass, Billy Stewart and Etta James. The highlights on this compilation are Sugar Pie DeSanto's fantastic "Soulful Dress," Fontella Bass' monster hit "Rescue Me," Laura Lee's "Dirty Man," and Ramsey Lewis' "Wade In The Water." The second collection should be an essential purchase for any blues lover who doesn't already have the earliest Aristocrat Records sides issued by the Chess brothers. The Aristocrat of the Blues starts out with the jump blues sound of The Five Blazes ("Chicago Boogie") from 1947, then eventually moves chronologically into the early recordings by Sunnyland Slim and Muddy Waters. Much of this two-CD set is comprised of Muddy's earliest sides, including "I Can't Be Satisfied" and "I Feel Like Going Home." He also plays guitar on the numbers from St. Louis Jimmy, Sunnyland Slim and Little Johnny Jones. There are also a whole slew of great tunes from Robert Nighthawk. The final collection in this set of reissues is entitled The Chess Blues-Rock Songbook, and includes the original versions of Chess blues classics which were later covered by better-known rock artists. Most of you will agree with me that these originals are far superior to the rock versions, so this collection will make a nice Christmas gift to someone who you're trying to convert to the blues.

Mississippi Fred McDowell album coverNot to be overlooked for a fantastic job in reissues this year is Rounder Records for their ongoing series of field recordings done for the Library of Congress by Alan Lomax. Fred McDowell: The First Recordings was originally recorded over several days in September 1959. The sound quality is excellent for field recordings, and the CD comes with extensive liner notes. Among the songs here are blues/gospel classics "61 Highway Blues" and "Keep Your Lamps Trimmed and Burning."

Fedora Records, based in New York City, launches their label with three excellent down-home blues releases from several lesser-known performers. Detroit blues guy Johnnie Bassett has the best CD in Bassett Hound. Playing in the company of a nice, tight jazz band, Bassett shows a light touch on guitar, all in contrast to his more rural sounding vocals. While not a real strong singer, Bassett evokes plenty of emotion on "Pick Up The Pieces." Pianist Bill Held shines on his own "Still Can Boogie."

For a good, raw original blues sound, you should then turn to another new Fedora release, Highway 99, by Oakland's J.J. Malone. "Biscuit Bakin' Woman" is a fun tune written by Malone, and the album also contains good covers of "Killing Floor" and "Mary Anne." Another West Coast bluesman, Harmonica Slim, also returns to the recording scene courtesy of Fedora with Give Me My Shotgun!. This disc is a collection of twelve tunes featuring Slim on harmonica and sharing vocals with the excellent Johnny "Da-Doo" Wilson. A tip of the hat to Fedora Records for bringing to us three wonderful, but under-recorded artists.

Toni Lynn Washington album coverWith the release of her second album for Tone-Cool Records, It's My Turn Now, Toni Lynn Washington shows that it really is her turn to move into the ranks of the elite woman blues singers. This is an excellent album of mostly swing and jump blues from the New England singer formerly a backup singer for Ben E. King. She immediately swings into action on the first cut, "Just Around The Corner." The best tune is a catchy, uptempo band original, "Paycheck In My Pocket," with a great hook line in "...I got my paycheck in my pocket where the blues always seems to be..." Ms. Washington also shows her originality as an artist with her unique versions of cover songs, such as the funky "I Don't Need No Doctor." If there's any justice in the music business, this lady will be famous someday.

I wasn't expecting too much when I first opened the new CD, Never Felt No Blues (Critique Records) by B.J. Sharp, figuring her to be just another Janis Joplin imitator. But I was pleasantly surprised by what I heard. Sharp is a blues singer from Los Angeles with a strong voice. "Keep On Cookin'" is a sassy blues number, while "I Don't Deserve is a slow, gospel-influenced ballad.

"Philadelphia" Jerry Ricks is from, you guessed it, Philadelphia, but spent many years living and touring in Europe. He plays acoustic guitar in the style of mentor Brownie McGhee, and has a rich, charcoal voice. Many of the songs on his new CD, Deep In The Well (Rooster Blues) are original compositions. This is not a dynamic album which will have you dancing in place, but the music is pleasant and soothing. The nicest picking is on John Hurt's "New Avalon," while Ricks plays good slide guitar on "Ain't Afraid Of These Blues."

Former Roomful of Blues pianist Al Copley joined forces with members of The Fabulous Thunderbirds in several sessions back in 1992 for his new CD, Good Understanding (Bullseye Blues). This guy's always been well-respected in the business, and he shows why right away on the Professor Longhair tune, "Doin' It," which features fuzzy harmonica backing by Kim Wilson. Since Copley's not a real strong singer, the best cuts are the instrumentals, such as the boogie woogie number "Run Riot (Rog's Romp)."

Another keyboard sideman steps to the front with his own CD in Bruce Katz, most notably a member of Ronnie Earl's Broadcasters. Mississippi Moan (Audioquest Music) features excellent piano and organ by Katz, backed by a band with a real tight horn section. The vastly underrated singer Mighty Sam McClain guests on two cuts, with the highlight being a bluesy "I'm Gonna Love You." The instrumentals run the gamut from jazz to blues to gospel to boogie woogie. Highly recommended!

Atomic Theory Records just dug into the vaults for some 1990 sessions from Los Angeles artist Lynwood Slim, and has released these recordings on Lost In America. Harmonica player Slim leads a band of notable L.A. session cats, including guitarists Junior Watson, Kid Ramos, Joel Foy and Dave Gonzales, through a dozen blues and jump tunes. Best of the bunch is a cover of Buddy Johnson's novelty number "It's Obdacious."

--- Bill Mitchell

Any type of music worth the name "genre" should have a core but also possess sufficient flexibility to accommodate a variety of ways to express that core. Joanna Connor proves this point with regard to blues, for surely she pushes this style about as far into hard rock as one can presently imagine. Her latest, Big Girl Blues (Blind Pig) showcases her hard-driving, edgy guitar riffs together with a strong and confident blues-rock voice. After a while, the pounding guitar work wears out its welcome, and the album accommodates this with three numbers --- "Fly Away," "Sweet Baby," and "Meditation" --- which establish her prowess in the more traditional blues styles. As an unexpected stylistic meander, the final track (recorded under the name "Josie Dread and Her Blue Clouds of Joy") offers a bit of dance music entitled "Smoke It Up," an infectious number
with a beat reminiscent of "The Macarena." Ms. Connor wrote or co-wrote all of the offerings. Overall, a worthy album, but perhaps most for those with adventuresome tastes.

If you cherish a bluesman who rocks the house on one cut and then swings acoustically with the likes of bluegrass worthies such as Sam Bush, you really should make the acquaintance of Jimmy Vivino. His recent release, Do What, Now? (MusicMasters) is the perfect intro. Produced by Al Kooper, and featuring The Rekooperators and other guest artists, it is a compelling 13 cut (51:57) traversal of everything that is good with the
blues. It has it all --- from soulful to uptempo, pop ("Sugaree") to gospel ("God Don't Ever Change") and traditional ("Stranger Blues") styles. Mostly, however, it is sophisticated, electrically-inspired music. This may sound like an eclectic mish-mash, but Jimmy puts his stamp of individuality on each number which gives flow and coherence to the album. His voice seems to meld with the fine instrumental work by all hands to present songs that have an edge, a drive, a sense of spontaneity (without sloppiness), and, most important, the conviction and sincerity that is the heart and soul of the blues. This is a must-have album!

--- Bill Jacobs

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