Big Nick and the Gila Monsters are a Phoenix-based band that's been together for about half a dozen years. They approached me about a year ago with the request to record a live album at our Phoenix Blues Society's annual Blues Blast. We never had an album recorded at our festival, so of course we said yes! The result is Live Reptiles! (MonsterTone Records), a fine set of swingin' blues. The sound quality is superb, as good as most studio recordings. The one exception is that the emcee (yours truly) used a mic not plugged into the recording board, so the stage introduction of the band comes out a little muffled. Highlighting the album is the consistently superb guitar work of Mike Lewis, especially on the opening instrumental number and the T-Bone song "Party Girl." Big Nick Riviera does his best vocal work on "Rack 'Em Up." He's got a deep vibrant voice, and it comes across well on the outdoor stage. A unique sound is provided by the addition of a flamenco dancer and Spanish guitarist to provide the intro to the blues shuffle "Flamenco Dancer." The Gila Monsters regular quartet was also augmented by the Groove Merchants horn section for this session, and it adds a fuller sound to the band. Overall, this is a fun party album, and I'm glad I was there to enjoy the show.
The return to U.S. soil by expatriate bluesman Luther Allison was one of the bigger success stories of the decade. Sadly, Allison passed away just as he was finally getting his long overdue recognition from the general blues community. Live In Chicago (Alligator) is a two-CD set recorded at two Chicago locations in 1995, including his triumphant appearance at the Chicago Blues Festival, as well as a few tracks from a 1997 gig at the Zoo Bar in Lincoln, Nebraska. Allison was one of the most intense performers I've ever heard both in person and on CD, and this collection captures him at his best. Versions of his best songs from his Alligator studio albums are here, including "Soul Fixin' Man," the incredible slow blues "Cherry Red Wine," and "All The King's Horses." For a different Luther Allison sound, be sure to check out the slow soulful original "Think With Your Heart." Otis Rush and Eddie C. Campbell joined Allison on stage at the Chicago Blues Festival for a blistering medley of "Gambler's Blues / Sweet Little Angel." This is a fine addition to Allison's discography, and his fans will want to quickly add it to their personal libraries.
Silvertone Blues (Blue Thumb) is a different kind of Joe Louis Walker album. Long a personal favorite of mine, Walker surprised me with this one, an all-acoustic set. Most cuts are either solo numbers or duos, with guest appearances from James Cotton, Alvin Youngblood Hart, and pianist Kenny "Blues Boss" Wayne. The killer cuts on this CD are "Crying Won't Help You," a duet with Hart backing on guitar as Walker plays Muddy-style slide and sings up a storm, and "It's You Baby," on which Walker is backed on harmonica by Cotton. For a little variety, Walker gives two instrumental numbers a bit of a Western swing feel on "Kenny's Barrelhouse" and the title cut. Wayne contributes some hot boogie woogie piano on both cuts. Highly recommended!
Former child prodigy (is he tired of that title yet?) Lucky Peterson is out with a respectable self-titled disc on Blue Thumb. The album starts rather slowly, as the first two cuts are pretty far away from the blues. But Peterson finally punches in on the third number, a slow blues entitled "Tribute to Luther Allison." Joe Louis Walker guests on a fine, funkier version of "Funny How Time Slips Away"; I really dig JLW's vocal work on this one. Another great cut is a funky version of Earl King's blues shuffle "Seduction." While also doing all of the lead guitar work, Peterson's strength is still his keyboard playing, and he sneaks in some great snaky solos on the soulful "Why Can't We Live Together." This isn't an essential album, but a strong example of contemporary blues from an extremely talented artist.
The Chicago Rhythm & Blues Kings used to be known as The Mellow Fellows, backing the late Chicago blues/soul vocalist Big Twist. They're still on the scene, which you'll consider to be good news after hearing their new self-titled CD for Blind Pig. Gene "Daddy G" Barge, best known for his horn arrangements on Chess hits from Little Milton and Koko Taylor, is the featured guest producer, horn player, songwriter, and vocalist .... really, this could have easily been billed as a Gene Barge album. If you're into bands with lots of horns, then this fine CD is right up your alley. The best cut, one of the strongest I've heard this year, is the version of Cash McCall's "Girlfriend, Woman, And Wife," with dynamite vocals from Ernie Peniston. The Barge-penned, horn-infused instrumental "Homecoming" is another strong one. Barge really stands out, both on vocals and with a solid sax solo, on his own "Love Is A Five Letter Word." Swingin' blues just doesn't get much better than this!
I really wanted to like Labor of Love (Severn) from New York drummer/singer Ola Dixon. Instead, this disc comes across as sounding a bit amateur-ish. Dixon's vocals don't always seem in synch with the band, and there's very little sense of timing or phrasing. She's strongest on the slow blues numbers, like "I Need Your Love So Bad" and the Jay McShann song "My Darkest Night," with nice gospel-style piano from Dave Maxwell.
A rather surprising CD comes from Georgia artist Forrest McDonald. Spirit of the Blues (World Talent) shows McDonald to be a good Texas-style guitarist and a competent singer. Some of his best guitar work can be heard on the slow blues "If You Don't Really Love Me." He also plays tasteful jazzy guitar on the blues shuffle "Cry No More."
Saffire guitar player and singer Gaye Adegbalola has released her first solo album, Bitter Sweet Blues (Alligator), and it's certainly destined to be one of the most thought-provoking discs of the year. Adegbalola tackles a lot of tough issues, such as violence against women, racism, homosexuality, and incest. Produced by Rory Block, Bitter Sweet Blues isn't likely to be played at many parties this holiday season. But it's the kind of CD that we need to hear to remind us of why they call it the blues. The strongest cut, an a capella duet with Block, "You Don't Have To Take It (Like I Did)," is a plea for women to get out of abusive relationships; the two singers' voices blended together well. "Nothing's Changed" is an urgent, topical number dealing with racism, most specifically the recent brutal killing of James Byrd. For something a little lighter, Adegbalola does a fine cover of "You Really Got A Hold On Me," on which she checks in with her best singing. "Front Door Blues" is an acoustic number, an 'ode to courage,' as the liner notes state. Bitter Sweet Blues ends with two somewhat related songs: "Nightmare," a saga of incest, and "Let Go, Let God," about getting redemption from all above the above problems. I'm not sure how much of the CD is autobiographical, but it sends some powerful messages to the listener, and will surely cause more than a few people to shed some tears.
I consider Chicago's Jimmy Johnson to be one of the unsung heroes of the blues world, with his late 70's / early 80's releases on Delmark being two of the better blues albums of that era. The second of the two discs, North / South, has now been re-issued by Delmark. While not as essential as the earlier Johnson's Whacks, this CD contains some nice material. It starts out with "Country Preacher," a tune with a funky blues beat on which he sounds like he's singing about his life. The best number is "Can't Go No Further," a slow, powerful blues featuring great gospel-style piano from Carl Snyder. The catchy "I Can't Survive" is a funky, soulful blues. There are also some low points on the album, and a few of the arrangements now sound dated. But overall, North / South is a worthy addition to the library of any serious blues fan.
Chicago Ain't Nothin' But A Blues Band (Delmark) was originally released on vinyl in 1972, and collected recordings made by Rev. H. H. Harrington for his Atomic-H label. In addition to recording gospel groups, the good Reverend also brought his share of blues ensembles into his West Side Chicago studio, and that's what is found here. 14 of the 23 cuts on the CD were not released on the original album, so it's hard to call this one a re-issue. And there's some great, raw urban blues to be found here. One of the stars in the Atomic-H stable was Rev. Harrington's nephew, Eddy Clearwater, who is still touring and recording. He contributes six of the disc's songs, most notably the Chuck Berry-ish "Hillbilly Blues" and an uptempo novelty tune "Neckbones Everyday." Harmonica George Robinson plays great uptempo harp on the very low-fidelity "Sputnik Music." Pianist Sunnyland Slim has the opening two cuts on the CD. As expected, "Recession Blues" and "Everything's Gonna Be All Right" are two of the strongest numbers, with good guitar from Matt Murphy and fine sax work from J.T. Brown. Jimmy Rogers (not the one who played with Muddy) contributes only one cut to the album, but it's a strong uptempo jumpin' blues, "I Am A Lucky Lucky Man." Finally, one of the coolest tunes is Jo Jo Williams' "Davy Crockett's Jingle Bells," an odd, but appealing number which is a mix of rhythmic African beat, familiar Christmas refrains, and a few lines of the Davy Crockett theme song. Bizarre, but great! Don't overlook this album ... it's essential!
Hip-O has been releasing the treasure trove of great Excello recordings made in Louisiana in the 50's and 60's. One of the label's top artists was Lightnin' Slim, who made frequent trips to Jay Miller's studio in Kenner during this period. The Best of Lightnin' Slim is just that ... capturing this raw, eclectic's artists best recordings. He's backed on harmonica on nearly all songs by his buddy Lazy Lester, who's still active in the blues biz. All of Slim's biggest hits are here, including "Hoo Doo Blues," "Rooster Blues," and "Bad Luck And Trouble." While everything here has been available previously, it's still nice to have this great music in circulation again. If you don't have any Lightnin' Slim collections, this album would be a good starting point.
--- Bill MitchellYou don't suppose Ottawa native Tony Diteodoro chose to shorten his name to Tony D to avoid being confused with other guitar players with the same name, do you? Well, I guess not. One thing is certain, though ... give a listen to Live Like Hell (Diesel), the latest offering from The Tony D Band, recorded live last February at the Cafe Campus in Montreal, and you won't confuse it with anything else. Sure, there are other hot guitarists around, and other tight bands too. But few guitar-centered blues acts offer so much room to the tenor saxophone, and you start to wonder why. Then again, few saxists are so adept at raunchy rock and roll numbers ("No Doubt") while also excelling at funky jazz-R&B (check out the solo in "Blues for Anna") as Zeek Gross, Tony D's main man for more than 12 years. The rest of the players here are all solid, and fellow Ottawa denizen Sue Foley guests on three songs. But in the end, it all comes down to Tony himself, and he more than rises to the occasion.
The legends are getting old ... Junior Wells, Luther Allison, Charles Brown and countless others have passed away in the last two years. But as Aristotle once said (or was it John Lee Hooker?), the blues will never die. Case in point: 29 year-old J.L. Stiles, from San Francisco, figures that the blues is as good a place as any from which to start and write personal and contemporary music. The title song of his CD, Sanctuary (Shoeless Records), will point you towards unplugged Beatles-styled pop, and Stiles has a social conscience, singing about the inequality in the distribution of riches on "Didn't Even Know It." But, for the most part, he is more interested in finding a good groove and staying on it, as on "Jenny's Boogie Smooth, Part II." On the short time he is allowed (the record is barely 36 minutes long), he manages to show us a wide array of styles, from electric blues-rock to story-telling acoustic folk-blues (on the 12-string guitar, too!). Where he goes from this starting point is anyone's guess, but you can count on him to keep the blues alive into the next century.
--- Benoît Brière
Every once in a while an album comes along that makes it impossible for your feet to keep still. Such is the case with this debut offering from The Janiva Magness Band Bad Luck Soul (Blue Leaf). If at least three of the selections on this CD don't get you moving in some fashion, then having your pulse checked might be a real good suggestion. This collection has something for everyone --- upbeat shuffles, retro swing, jump blues, boogie, r&b grooves and smokey slow grinds. To compare Janiva Magness' voice with anyone else's would be a gross injustice to this incredibly talented singer. She sounds like herself, it's that simple. If forced to make a comparison, the best description would be to add the power of Tracy Nelson to the polish of Marcia Ball to the energy of Lou Ann Barton, sprinkle it with the sweetness of Billie Holiday, and you have Janiva Magness. Her vocals are purely melodic and her delivery is completely passionate and loaded with emotional outpourings. To put it bluntly --- this lady sings her butt off! The CD's title track opens with a swinging commentary about a lady way down on her luck followed by the happy upbeat story of reunited love "Tears Of Joy." Guesting on three numbers is the always wonderful Kid Ramos, who brings his fine sound to the bouncy "What's The Matter With The Mill," the lonely heartache of "Empty Bed Blues," and the CD's closing piece "Seven Long Days." The cream of the crop here is "It's Love Baby (Twenty Four Hours A Day)," the hip shaking "Baby, Baby Every Night," and the gem of this album, a cover of "Billie's Blues." Five of the fourteen numbers are originals written by multi-instrumentalist, bandmate and husband Jeff Turmes, who sings lead on all five, the most notable being "Take A Number" and "Happy Hour." To sum up this CD, there isn't a bad tune to be found here. The production and performances are first rate as is the material. Watch out for this lady! If this CD is any indication of things to come then she is going to be a superstar very shortly. This woman can sing!
Billy Branch's latest release Satisfy Me (House Of Blues) is a walk on the slightly funky side of the blues. Although he has been the leader of the SOB's (Sons Of The Blues) for years, Mr. Branch has often been referred to as the 'junior' statesman of Chicago blues harp. With this album Billy has most assuredly earned his place alongside the 'elder' masters Cotton, Wells, Pryor and Bell. His use of the upper register is brilliant and his melodious runs are tantalizing. In other words......... Branch is blowing like he usually does and his vocal abilities, which have always been underrated, are quite good. On hand providing further blues virtuosity is keyboard wizard David Torkanowsky, George Porter on bass, and SOB bandmate Carl Weathersby on guitar. This album is made up mostly of covers by some exceptional songwriters. The CD's opening bopping cut, "It's A Crazy Mixed Up World," is written by John Lee Hooker. Two Bill Withers pieces, "Kissing My Love" and "Heart In Your Life," offer some romantic moments. The two standout numbers on this CD are Willie Dixon's "Same Thing," a slow Chicago groove, and a Leon Russell tune "Boogie Man," on which guitarist Weathersby lays down some hot licks. "Satisfy Me" and "Highway Blues" are two funky numbers that cook to the point of boiling, as does the closing selection "Goin' Down." The one original, "Son Of Juke," is an instrumental harp workout that is over far too quickly, but shows off the depths of this great harp players talents. Satisfy Me is very eclectic at times, and will more than satisfy Billy Branch and harp fans alike.
--- Steve Hinrichsen
Dan Penn & Spooner Oldham are two names familiar to anyone who has listened to Southern soul in the last thirty years. They have written, or co-written, some of the genres most beloved songs, such as "Dark End of the Street," "Cry Like a Baby," "Sweet Inspiration," "Do Right Woman, Do Right Man," "It Tears Me Up," and "Out of Left Field." In addition, Penn recorded a wonderful album in 1994, Do Right Man, that showed his talents as a singer. He has a distinctive, soulful voice that made his interpretations of his own songs previously recorded by others sound like something totally new. Late in 1998, Penn and Oldham did a brief tour of the UK and Ireland, opening for Nick Lowe and performing their own songs in a sparse setting (accompanied only by Oldhams piano and Penns acoustic guitar). These shows were so well received that Proper Records has released some of their best performances from those shows on a CD called Moments From This Theatre. Penns voice is outstanding as he sings many of the classic tunes already mentioned. Oldham, who usually stays in the background, comes out front for a performance of his own composition, "Lonely Women Make Good Lovers," and is rock steady on the Wurlitzer. This is Southern soul music at its finest.Were you wondering what Walter "Wolfman" Washington was up to in that seven-year span between 1991s Sada and 1998s Funk Is In The House? He wasnt just sitting around. In 1994, while between U.S. record labels, he was in Europe recording Blue Moon Risin, which stands as his best work yet. Blue Moon Risin is an excellent collection of originals and covers, and its probably his most blues-oriented work yet. Washingtons years of playing with the late Johnny Adams really show up in his vocals, and his guitar work, as always, is exceptional. The Roadmasters provide rock-solid backing, and the J.B. Horns (Maceo Parker, Fred Wesley and Pee Wee Ellis) appear on roughly half of the tracks. There are no bad tracks on this CD, but there are two standouts in particular. The title cut, which stands as one of the best tracks Walter has ever recorded, and a smoking, nine-minute cover of "Drown In My Own Tears" (re-titled "Drown," with songwriting credit to Walter). One can only wonder why this wasnt deemed worthy of release when it was recorded. Its released by Artelier Records, a German label, and is well worth seeking out.
Few have heard of Texas Johnny Brown outside of the Houston area, but he was a key session player with Duke/Peacock Records in the 1950s and 60s, serving as guitarist on many of Bobby Bland and Junior Parkers recordings. He also wrote Blands "Two Steps From The Blues," although it was credited to Deadric Malone (a name used by Duke/Peacock owner Don Robey to claim songwriting royalties on many songs that he would not have recorded otherwise). Brown also played in Amos Milburns band in the 40s and 50s, and recorded a few tracks of his own, backed by Milburns band, which later appeared on an Atlantic Records compilation in the mid 80s. He left the music world in the early 60s, re-emerging in the early 90s. His recent, self-produced CD, Nothin But The Truth, marks a welcome return to recording for Brown. Actually, its like he was never gone. He reprises his old Atlantic track "There Goes The Blues," and finally gets to record his own version of "Two Steps From The Blues." His guitar is as good as ever, maybe better. His vocals are a little rough around the edges, but effective. The rest of the songs are original compostions by Brown (except for the instrumental cover of "Aint No Way"), and lean toward the soulful side of blues. "Cheatin and Stealin" (with its punchy horns), "Strange Situation," "Once Was," and the title track (about his life after the death of his mother) are among the standout tracks. Brown is backed by an excellent band, including the late Teddy Reynolds on three tracks). This CD is available from Choctaw Creek Records (P. O. Box 218726, Houston, TX 77218-8726, or call (281) 578-5626). Pick it up! Youll be glad you did.
--- Graham Clarke
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