Takin' Chances (Cannonball Records) is James Harman's first CD of new material in three years, and for this reviewer's money, it's his best since the Extra Napkins release on Rivera Records a decade ago (that particular item has also been reissued on
Cannonball Records). Although James' harmonica playing, singing and songwriting is as strong as ever (maybe stronger), I'd have to recommend this disc to guitarists as much as to harpists and harp fans. You can hardly
go wrong with a lineup like this: Junior Watson, Kid Ramos, Bob Margolin and our own local boy, Buddy Reed. As it turns out, Buddy and James are tight from way back when they used to play together in the early 70's. So
James brought his old friend in for this recording on two numbers. One of these, "Sweet, Sweet Dream," is even a Reed original (all the other tunes on the CD are Harman originals). The disc is really a "concept" album, the idea being that life in all its aspects is ultimately a gamble. I don't know many blues lovers who would argue with that proposition! The album also features the blues in a variety of styles, from N'awlins R&B and West Coast swing, to low-down Delta grooves on up to the full-blown Chicago sound. I think you can safely "take a chance" on this one.
--- Lee Poole
Where's the party? The Love Dogs sophomore effort Heavy
Petting (Tone-Cool) answers the question with "Right here!" This east coast
septet plays jump and swing with enough blues to satisfy blues fans, and enough of a pop
flavor to appeal to a broader audience. This is dance music, but it also has interesting
solos throughout the disk. There are usually at least two solos on each song. The band's
normal configuration is three saxes, piano, drums, bass and vocals. Additional players,
including trombone, trumpet and more saxes are added. What about guitar? Glenn Shambroom
plays guitar in addition to three different saxes, and the guitar is featured on only one
song. I didn't notice it not being there until I heard it late in the CD. The name most
familiar to fans is "Sax" Gordon Beadle, an original Love Dog; he's a featured
soloist on six songs. Steve Brown's drumming is excellent and made listening fun. My
disappointment with the CD is the inclusion of a
--- Tony Nowicki
first saw Vance Kelly at the Chicago Blues Festival five or so years ago
in a West Side jam session type of show. I had never before heard of the guy, but native
Chicagoans in the crowd were quite familiar with his music. If his new release, Hands
Off! (Wolf Records), is any indication of his live performances, then Mr. Kelly
should get out of town more often and make himself known to the rest of the blues world.
He's a strong soulful singer and nice guitarist fronting a solid Chicago band through a
collection of a dozen blues and soul numbers. The disc begins with still another version
of "Mustang Sally," which is OK, but haven't we heard this song enough times? It
gets better when Kelly kicks in a couple of soul originals, "Stay With It" and
"Don't Make Me Wait." I especially liked the range in his voice on the latter.
The best straight blues number is the slow "Bad Taste In My Mouth," which
features a good guitar intro from Kelly and harmonica accompaniment from Billy Branch.
Chicago bass player/bandleader Willie Kent is Exhibit A of a "working man's bluesman." He's solid and consistent, but not flashy, just like a good career utility infielder on a baseball team. Everybody Needs Somebody (Wolf Records) contains both studio and live recordings of West Side Chicago blues, the latter being recorded in 1995 in Austria. Kent is a powerful vocalist, similar to Buddy Guy but more restrained, especially on the opening number "Better Days." Guitarist Carlos Showers solos and handles the vocals quite capably on the slow blues "My Baby's Gone." Like most contemporary Chicago bands, each live show has to include a Magic Sam number, and Kent turns in a nice version of "All Your Love."
Edward Taylor, the son of late Chicago blues legend Eddie Taylor, gathered together family members and former bandmates of his father to record Lookin' For Trouble: A Tribute To Eddie Taylor (Wolf Records). The result is a good collection of Chicago blues classics, most written by either the father or son, and a few from Taylor Sr.'s old partner Jimmy Reed. Backing musicians include guitarist Johnny B. Moore, sax player Eddie Shaw and bassist Willie Kent. Among the standards covered here are "Goin' Upside Your Head," "Bad Boy," "Down In Virginia" and "Big Town Playboy." The highlight for me, though, was Moore's excellent guitar work on Slim Harpo's "I'm Gonna Miss You."
There are very few icons left in the music world as popular as John Lee Hooker. That fact is evident by the number of world class musicians who have gone into the studio to record with Hooker over the last ten years. The cream of these sessions is captured on The Best Of Friends (Pointblank). What's interesting is how easily these musicians, representing a wide variety of musical styles, are able to blend their sounds with that of Hooker and still maintain the distinct personality of each artist. The album starts with a new recording of "Boogie Chillen," with guests Eric Clapton and Bill Payne. This triumvirate takes this old blues classic and makes it into a 'John Lee Hooker meets Little Feat meets Derek & The Dominos' kind of sound. While "The Healer" was played to death on AAA radio in the early part of the decade, I still enjoy hearing Hooker and Carlos Santana team up on this number. Another previously-unissued cut, "Big Legs Tight Skirt," features the unique combination of Ry Cooder on guitar, Ike Turner on piano and Terry Evans on backing vocals --- this one alone is worth the price of the CD!
I was just wondering what had ever happened to talented multi-instrumentalist Geoff Muldaur. His newest CD, The Secret Handshake (Hightone), is superb, and almost qualified as this month's Pick Hit. This album is a collection of Muldaur's favorite old blues and gospel tunes, complete with comprehensive historical and biographical information on each song. While not a real powerful vocalist, Muldaur delivers good, soulful vocals on the gospel number "This World Is Not My Home" and absolutely tears it up on another spiritual "I Believe I'll Go Back Home." "Got To Find Blind Lemon - Part One" is an original composition, a country blues with the unique addition of congas to Muldaur's guitar pickin'. Another highlight on The Secret Handshake is a medley of "Chevrolet / Big Alice," combining raw Delta blues with a New Orleans second line fife & drum sound. This CD's not to be missed!
LeRoi Sorgo has been hosting a series of 'Harp Attack' harmonica showcases in Southern California for the past five years. Harp Attack (Making Tracks Music) issues some of the best live cuts from these shows. As expected for this type of CD, there's a wide range in both sound quality and musicianship represented here. This collection does not include any of the better known L.A. harp cats like Piazza, Clarke, Logan or Harman, but there's some decent stuff here. My favorite featured David McKelvy on harmonica on "Red Rooster," with my buddy Chico Chism on vocals. Stanley "The Baron" Behrens contributed a tasty instrumental number entitled "Stan's Jam."
Swing and Jump Blues bands are becoming fashionable everywhere, so I'd expect trendsetting Seattle to have more than its share. Tim Casey and The Bluescats ran a tape one night when they were opening for Billy Branch, and the result is "Live In Seattle" (Blues Cat Records). Sound quality is at least adequate, Casey is a hot guitarist, and the band delivers fun, jumpin' blues. Most of the numbers are covers, with one of my favorites being the red hot "She Knocks Me Out."
A surprisingly good indy CD comes from New Jersey, 88 Miles by Matt O'Ree and the Blues Hounds. O'Ree is a strong Stevie Ray Vaughan-influenced guitarist, and really gets a chance to show his stuff on the instrumental "88 Miles." He's not a real strong singer, but certainly not annoying; there's potential for improvement. The album ends nicely with an acoustic version of "Dust My Broom."
If you like your Chicago blues flavored with a heavy dose of horns, then go looking for Horns (Appaloosa) from B.J Emery & Maurice John Vaughn. Vaughn is the better known of the pair through his fine CDs for Alligator, but this is Emery's show. He's got a rich voice, although limited somewhat in range, and plays a mean trombone. You'll hear his best horn work on the slow blues "Big Bad Circle." "I Gamble, I Gamble" is a mid-tempo shuffle which starts out with a good trombone intro. The band takes Sly Stone's "I Want To Take You Higher" and turns it into a funky blues.
Three of the true pioneers of boogie woogie piano assembled at Chicago's Hotel Sherman in 1939 for a live recording session, the results of which are now available on Boogie Woogie Stomp (Delmark). Albert Ammons earned top billing, but also participating was Meade Lux Lewis and Pete Johnson. The sound quality is excellent, especially considering that the recordings were made nearly 60 years ago. All cuts are instrumentals, and represent some of the finest piano work of that era. The CD concludes with four studio recordings from 1938.
Drivin' On (MCA), compiles the 1975-1982 ABC recordings from British blues father John Mayall. This double-CD packs in 32 cuts, with the music sounding fresh and not at all dated. My favorite number on disc one was "Lady," an uptempo number from the '76 album A Banquet In Blues. Red Holloway contributes nice alto sax work here. As expected, there's a version of Mayall's classic "Room To Move," recorded live at The Roxy in Los Angeles and released on the 1977 album Lots Of People. On side two Mayall plays mean harp on a live version of "Parchman Farm" from Last Of The British Blues.
A pleasant surprise from the San Francisco Bay Area is the relatively unknown artist Jake Sampson. His debut disc, Three Shades Of The Blues (LifeForce), is an appetizing mix of contemporary blues, jazz and R&B. Sampson, who doubles on bass, is a good singer, although on a few tunes he pushes his voice just a little too much. The real treat on this CD is the outstanding sax accompaniment of Rock Hendricks, especially on the opener "Goin' Down Kwik." I hope to catch this band in person real soon.
I'm starting to get a tad bored with the more recent albums from Little Charlie and The Nightcats. They seem to be stuck in the same "novelty blues" rut. On their latest, Shadow of the Blues (Alligator), the hottest numbers are the instrumentals. Harmonica player Rick Estrin gets the band cookin' on "Got It Good," and Charlie Baty shows off his guitar chops on "Percolatin'." Otherwise, this CD never catches fire.
Baby-faced guitarist Bryce Janey shows us that people in Iowa get the blues, too. Janey's hot four-piece ensemble plays rockin' blues, and does it well, on Sweet Baby Jane (Blue Sunday). All songs on the CD are originals, except for a solo electric version of Robert Johnson's "Love In Vain." Janey is a strong singer, with a voice somewhat reminiscent of Kim Wilson, and also plays guitar. The title cut is the catchiest number here, featuring some nice instrumental breaks from Janey.
I'm generally suspicious of blues albums from guys who look more like rock stars. While Indiana-based guitarist Gene Deer's style is rock-influenced, there's a lot of blues to be found on Livin' With The Blues (Slippery Noodle Sound). "Just Shoulda' Lay'd Off'a the Booze" is an uptempo blues shuffle which shows Deer to also be a strong vocalist; he gives us pretty much a straight blues sound here. Deer's best guitar work can be heard on the slow tune "Livin' With The Blues."
There aren't many guitar players as talented as Chris Smither. Nor are there too many better songwriters. Happier Blue (Hightone) presents Smither in band setting; if you like Ry Cooder's style, then you need to take a listen to this disc. Smither really tears up the guitar strings on the second half of the "No More Cane On The Brazos/Mail Order Mystics" medley, not unlike some of Leo Kottke's better work. There's also a real cool version of Little Feat's "Rock 'N' Roll Doctor," very different from the original, and a swinging cover of John Hiatt's "Memphis In The Meantime." The album ends with a fine solo guitar number, "Time To Spend," evoking an older blues mood. This CD comes very highly recommended!
Bernard Allison has picked up where his late father Luther left off. On Times Are Changing (Ruf) Allison presents much the same sound, with a similar guitar style. He has yet to acquire the same degree of intensity that Dad possessed, but he's still a strong performer. The funky "Life Is A Bitch" is one of the strongest cuts. Bobby Rush makes a guest appearance on his own "In The Morning." The younger Allison performs a touching acoustic tribute to his father, "Don't Be Confused."
Push back the furniture, roll up the carpets, and get ready to swing dance when you pop Swing Dance Party (Palamar) into your CD player. It's a whopping 17 cuts by L.A.-based harmonica player Flattop Tom & His Jump Cats. Like his main influence, the late William Clarke, Tom takes the big fat sound of his harmonica and turns it into a lead big band instrument. Most of the cuts are originals, most notably the tasty and appetizing "Left Coast Carl's BBQ."
--- Bill Mitchell
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