Odetta has had a distinguished career as a singer for more than 50 years, and her powerful voice is still as robust as ever. While never strictly a blues performer, she has been marketed to that audience more with her last couple of albums. That's good, because her latest, Lookin' For A Home (M.C. Records), is a very enjoyable disc. Odetta pays tribute to one of her idols, Leadbelly, on this CD, covering 15 of his original compositions. You've heard most of these American music classics many times, but Odetta injects them all with a breath of fresh air. "Goodnight Irene" has more of a funky Caribbean / New Orleans beat. Two other Leadbelly standards, "How Long" and "Bourgeois Blues," are given more of a blues treatment thanks to the wonderful slide guitar accompaniment of Jimmy Vivino and Kim Wilson's always tasteful harmonica playing. Not to be overlooked is the fine piano playing of Seth Farber. Like Odetta, Leadbelly never allowed himself to comfortably settle into any specific musical genre, so one of the more interesting covers is the western song, "When I Was A Cowboy," with good violin by Fred Koella. New Orleans piano wizard Henry Butler adds a gospel touch to the stirring "In The Pines." One other special guest of note is Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown, who plays violin on the slow blues of "Easy Rider" (basically the same song as "See See Rider"). A very good album of great songs from a classic of American music ... recommended.
I met Archie Edwards more than 20 years ago in a small Washington, D.C. neighborhood bar / restaurant. He was playing his guitar and singing for the handful of diners, most of whom were oblivious to the old man with the steel-pan guitar, offering only polite applause at the end of each number. Because we were the only patrons paying close attention to Mr. Edwards' music, he wound up sitting at our table and giving us a personal concert for the next two hours. Archie Edwards passed away in 1998 at the age of 79, but now we have a wonderful set of music, The Toronto Sessions (NorthernBlues Music), resulting from several sessions recorded when Edwards visited Toronto in 1986. His music epitomizes the Piedmont blues style, marked by crisp, finger-pickin' style of guitar. This CD contains 13 cuts, many of them songs that Edwards played for us in that D.C. restaurant. Edwards always introduced each song with a little story about its origin, and these priceless tales are captured in the extensive liner notes, along with an excellent biography on Edwards. Among his regular numbers heard here are "I Had A Little Girl," "Greyhound Bus Blues," "I Called My Baby Long Distance" and "Pittsburgh Blues." He also gives us versions of traditional blues numbers like "Sitting On Top Of The World," "That Won't Do," "Easy Rider" and "How Long Blues." Edwards' best guitar pickin' can be heard on "Take Me Back Baby," a song he learned from Mississippi John Hurt, who spent a significant amount of time hanging out at Edwards' barber shop during the years he spent in Washington, D.C. in the 1960s. The Toronto Sessions is a wonderful collection of songs by a man who gained far too little recognition outside his home base. Absolutely essential for any lover of traditional blues.
Arthur Williams is another performer who has not gained sufficient attention outside his home base. This excellent singer and harmonica player from St. Louis has produced one of the stronger traditional blues albums of the year in Midnight Blue (Rooster Blues Records). He does a few original numbers to start out the album, "You Got My Nose Open" and the late night instrumental "Midnight Blue," then launches into a great collection of blues standards. Williams sings in a style similar to that of both Howlin' Wolf and Sonny Boy Williamson II, with the Wolf influence heard on the opening number, a mid-tempo raw blues shuffle. The title cut is a slow blues in the style of Little Walter, with excellent piano work contributed by album producer Bob Lohr. The two Sonny Boy covers, "Don't Start Me To Talking" and "Keep It To Yourself," are done acoustic-style with the only accompaniment from guitarist Jesse Hoggard. Williams plays some nice mellow harp on an original number, "Clarksdale Train," again highlighted by Lohr's fine piano work. Williams and Lohr also team up on a version of Jimmy Reed's "Down In Virginia," which features a strong electric guitar solo from Hoggard. One other note of interest ... the drummer on these sessions is Willie "Big Eyes" Smith, formerly with Muddy Waters. This is a great album, and one that should that soon grace the collection of anyone who digs the real blues.
While we're on the topic of under appreciated blues artists, let's move over to Nashville for a visit with guitarist Johnny Jones, who has been a major cog in that city's blues history. Blues Is In The House (NorthernBlues Music) is funkier and more urban than the albums reviewed above, yet still firmly rooted in the blues. Jones kicks things off with the funky "A Fool Never Learns," which includes some nice JB-style sax from Dennis Taylor. He then throws the listener for a loop on the the 'downhome blues'-sounding "Girlfriend Blues," with the shocking revelation that his "...girlfriend has a girlfriend, too..." Jones' rich vocals are heard to good effect on the slow, snaky blues, "I'm Gonna Love You." The other cuts that I really like are the instrumental "Really," on which Jones' guitar takes on a tremelo effect similar to that of Robert Ward's sound, and the rollicking closing number, "The Blues Is In The House," a spirited shuffle that sends the listener away feeling happy and satisfied. An enjoyable album from beginning to end.
Moving further east, we come across a good independent release from Durham, North Carolina singer / keyboard player Bobby Hinton. Singing The Blues (Umbrella Records) is a mixture of blues, jazz, soul and funky R&B. The album starts out with a strong B.B.-style blues, "Are You Happy?," featuring a fine group of gospel-style backup singers and rich, soulful vocals from Hinton. "Today I Sing The Blues" and "Dry Your Eyes" both feature solid guitar work, especially on the latter, a slow blues that serves as a duet with an excellent female vocalist (presumably Sylvia Harris). Harris' strong vocal work is showcased on a jazzy interpretation of "Crazy," backed by chromatic harmonica from T. Ruth. The last few cuts on the disc venture more into funk and contemporary R&B, and for my tastes are less interesting than the straighter blues numbers. But this is still a worthwhile album from a good performer. Be sure to also check out Hinton's good looking web site at www.BobbyHinton.com.
It wouldn't be a December issue of Blues Bytes without a review of a good Christmas CD, and this year we have one from the King of the Blues, B.B. King, with A Christmas Celebration of Hope (MCA). B.B. and his regular band treat the listener to nice versions of 13 holiday classics. My favorites are "Please Come Home For Christmas," on which his voice fits the arrangement very well, and the rowdy "Back Door Santa," with good horn accompaniment. There's a beautiful, jazzy instrumental version of "I'll Be Home For Christmas," on which Lucille (B.B.'s guitar) sings out the melody in exquisite fashion. The Charles Brown classic, "Merry Christmas Baby," is given a much different treatment, as B.B. slows down the tempo even more than on the original. "Christmas Love" carries a very spiritual air, done as an instrumental with strong gospel-style piano from James Sells Toney. The only number that doesn't work is the cover of "Christmas Comes But Once A Year," as B.B.'s uninspired vocals and the tempo set by the band just don't jive properly. Otherwise, A Christmas Celebration of Hope is a nice addition to any blues fan's collection of holiday music.
--- Bill Mitchell
I love these independent releases because the influences of major label doctrines don't come into play at all, and what we usually get is a singer and producer giving their all, producing a labor of love. Willie Tolver is a new name to me, but after a few tunes on She Put The Stroke On Me (Bama Records), you realize that you are being entertained by a seasoned performer who deserves wider attention. This is very southern soul similar in overall scope to a Bobby Rush. The title track is a distant cousin to Rush's trademark song, "Sue," and will be the most played on this CD. In fact this track appears here in three different versions (one being a dance mix), so they thought this is the one to breakout. I hope it does, because it is a fun track with a good hook that stays in your head. The slow burner, "Why You Lied," is a good track, as is "It's Only A Matter of Time," recorded by The Facts of Life in the late 70s. There are the references to Jody stealing his woman, so much a trademark of southern soul songs. Forget about "I wanna be like Mike," "I wanna be like Jody", he's been stealing woman for about 40 years now. There are a several other tunes worthy of repeated listening. Copies can be ordered from Mr. Robert Henderson c/o Hot Spot Records, WAPZ Radio 1250 AM, 2821 US Hwy 231, Wetumpka, Al 36092 or by phone at 334-567-2251 or fax 334-567-7971.
I have followed Lee Field's career for some time. I was first turned on to him by Johnny Vincent of Ace (U.S.) Records and later, once again, on Vincent's last label Avanti Records. Fields followed in the shadow of James Brown, and his prior albums were funky in a southern sort of way. A few other labels, and a few other releases, and Fields remained true to his craft. I really don't think he ever made a poor album, but funk was always at the forefront. This new independent release, Keep It Real (BDA Records), is more of a southern soul album, and a good one at that. Always a great vocalist, this release lets him stretch out a bit. The title track is a danceable one that would play on most top 40 stations. But this reviewer's favorite track is the deep soul flavored "Blues In A Bottle," with it's fine female back up singers (uncredited) that would be right at home on the chitlin' radio circuit. "I Can't Take Another Night" is another track with universal radio appeal. I enjoyed almost all the tracks, but longed for real instruments and musicians instead of the programmed instrumentation. I guess budgets have to be met, so I can only imagine how great so many of these independent releases could be with a bit larger bankroll. Oh well, you can't have everything. Copies can be ordered from Hot Spot Records (see Willie Tolver CD for info).
--- Alan Shutro
Tom D'Angelo has two very unique aspects going for him as a blues musician. First he plays upright and electric bass and fronts a blues/swing band. Secondly he resides and plays in Southern Florida, not usually considered a haven for the blues. But D'Angelo has managed to put together a grouping of the best the area has to offer to come up with a nice full recording entitled Old News, New Shoes. Here, D'Angelo does very well in various blues forms, like jump boogie in "One Bad Stud," featuring the vocals and harp of Billy Burns, as well as lowdown on "Every Night" with some very capable guitar work and vocals by Joel De Silva. A nice reworking of Robert Johnson's "Walking Blues" ties up things real well, with Shawn Starksy providing nicely wrought guitar picking supported with Greg Gordon's jumping harp notes. What really makes this CD unique is that each song has different personnel embellishing the music in their own style, allowing the listener to be surprised awaiting each new track to see what comes next. Kudos to D'Angelo in understanding how best to record each individual style of playing with his own unmistakable bass playing for true support. If your interest is piqued (and it should be) you will find out how to get a copy by visiting D'Angelo at his website --- www.tomdangelo.com. Enjoy.
In the early years of recording sales and radio tracking, blues was always mixed in with R&B and some other music form not related to this most American art form. Billboard finally caught on and decided blues should have a chart of its own, since public interest was at an all time high during the 90s with such chart toppers as Jonny Lang and Kenny Wayne Shepherd mixed in with greats like B.B., John Lee Hooker and Eric Clapton. It stands to reason that the #1 spot should be occupied by a powerhouse on the blues scene, but for the past two months a compilation has graced that position. Get the Blues, a collection issued by NARM (National Assoc. of Retail Merchandisers) and the Blues Music Association for the 2001 convention as a sampler for the attendees, is jammed packed with a super cross section of contemporary artists with a little old time blues thrown in for good measure. We have the best from people like Keb' Mo,' serenading us with the acoustic driven "The Door" and R. L. Burnside's Delta blues-drenched solo acoustic ramblings on "Miss Maybelle." The other side of guitar playing, amplified, fills up our good soul with performances by such notables as Walter Trout, blasting his way through with "Ride Till I'm Satisfied," and Stevie Ray Vaughan with his signature tune "Pride and Joy." The female side of things is well-represented here with Rory Block's soulful "Talkin' About My Man" and the powerful, growling blues of Koko Taylor, along with selections by newcomer Shemekia Copeland and E.G. Knight. My favorite tune on this collection has got to be Otis Taylor's "My Soul's in Louisiana". Train noises at a crossing filter through the air as an acoustic guitar picks an up-tempo beat carrying us through the entirety of the song, with wonderful vocals supplied by Taylor including some superior mournful wailing midway through. It chills me every time I hear it. This CD is a must buy considering all the fantastic music that's on it, and especially since it retails for about $2.00.
From the Bay area comes a true sounding blues formation calling themselves Little Jonny and the Giants. Their latest release, King of Clubs (Cornbread Records), strikes gold covering a wide variety of blues styles from straight-ahead to funky. Guitarist/Vocalist Jon Lawton (Little Jonny) hails from the midwest, but has been soaking up the California sun since the late 80's and playing in different incarnations of blues bands up and down the coast, finally settling in the San Fran area since the mid-90s. Lawton's personal feel for performing live involves only a three-piece, so he can explore the full texture of his blues playing which he and his band do on a regular basis at one of the city's premier nightspots, Biscuits and Blues. When recording, Lawton likes to expand a bit, which he does here with the addition of R.J. Mischo on harp and Chip Roland on Hammond B-3. This, of course, adds a new dimension which is immediately heard on the opening track, a remake of Elmore James "Standing at the Crossroads," wonderfully enhanced by Lawton's slide work and Mischo's blowing. Other highlights include "Overtime I Hear Your Name" (a Lawton original), which once again showcases Mischo's harpworks reminiscent of Little Walter. Fine tune. The mood changes on "Orphan Blues," giving the listener something to get lowdown and dirty with. Another Lawton original "Hip Flip," an instrumental, will get anyone listening up on their feet doing the Funky Chicken. This CD has it all and proves that you don't always need the big backing of a major label to put out truly inspiring music. Check it all out at littlejonny.com.
--- Bruce Coen
Johnny Nicholas & The Texas All-Stars' CD, Rockin' My Blues To Sleep (Top Cat Records) is a nice releasefrom a band that I haven't heard of before, but I'm sure we're all going to hear more of in the future. This album has a real mix of different styles and tempos, although to my mind the influence that comes through strongest is from Fats Domino. "I'm A Fool To Care" a track that takes you right back to the mid 1950s and the changeover from jump blues to rock and roll. There are so many different styles and influences mixed in here that it's hard to pick up any one over the others (apart from "I'm A Fool To Care"). From boogie woogie blues, through traditional Louisiana style blues to slow moody blues, there's a bit of everything for veryone. There's even a bit of black humour on James Lane's "The Last Meal," a story of a condemned man's last food request. Normally I can pick out one track that stirs me more than the others, but it's really difficult here. I have to choose between at least three: "I'm A Fool To Care," J.B.Lenoir's "Mama Talk To Your Daughter" and "Boogie Back To Texas," written by Johnny Nicholas. Well worth a listen is my verdict here.
--- Terry Clear
Ellen Whyte and Reflex Blue are back with another innovative and diverse approach to the blues with their latest offering, Standing At The Sunrise (Amellegory). Two-time Grammy Award nominees and Cascade Blues Associations - Muddy Awards (in 1998 and 2001) Best Contemporary Blues Band recipients have been praised by critics and captivating audiences since the maiden release of Different Point of Blue. With the gutsy and raw, yet sensitive and supple, vocals of Ellen (dubbed The Neon Blonde of Blues) and the rock-solid sound of Reflex Blue, this is no surprise. Produced by Grammy Award-winning, Dennis Walker (who has produced such other notable blues stars including Robert Cray and B.B. King), Standing At The Sunrise is an eclectic compilation ranging in styles from straight ahead blues to elements of jazz, funk and soul. The opening track, "I Never Knew," is an all around good-time shuffle featuring fat horn fills, clean and mean guitar riffs, and a mammoth Hammond solo. Flexing her creative muscle, the title track has a Zydeco-inspired rhythm with a Louisiana style piano while Whyte lets loose on her accordion. The sweet and soulful ballad "I Found Myself In You," highlights the harmonic range that Ellen Whyte is capable of as she exorcises her mellifluous voice. While this CD ventures into other genres, it always comes back to the blues, as on the instrumental shuffle "Blowout On 'A' Street" which elicits unyielding solo's from guitarist Gary Meziere and Alex Shakeri on harp. The Oregon-based Ellen Whyte is again attracting regional as well as national attention with her very distinctive sound. Standing At The Sunrise is unapologetically unique in its approach, individual in its execution and is an all around pleasurable experience.
Music naturally progresses, and the blues is no exception. What was once considered blues has now evolved to integrate elements of rock, soul, jazz, and pop. Riding the wave of this new genre, we find the eclectic sounds of Pacific Northwest-based Left Hand Smoke with their second release, So Many Faces (Mackadoshis). Not your typical blues band, Left Hand Smoke has been compared to The Dave Matthews Band; not in sound, but in the category of "adult alternative" and have already gained regional, as well as national attention with their unique style. Although a college radio favorite, the band spent four months in the regular rotation on Seattle's KMTT with the song "Step Outside." In addition, the song found it's way onto the KMTT compilation On The Mountain 6, alongside such legendary artists as Patti Smith and Tom Waits. The song "Blue Eye Shinin'," from the band's debut disc, was featured on NBC's top-rated series ER. So Many Faces is an assortment of many different genres. However, LHS at all times draw on blues as an underlying influence, such as on the opening track "Paradise Blues." This bluesy boogie-rock tune is reminiscent of Savoy Brown. With funky piano, smokin' drumming and straight-ahead rock and roll guitar, this little ditty just plain cooks. With an acoustic guitar and harmonica coupled with smooth harmonies, the track "Keep On Calling" interjects elements of country and leans toward a more contemporary style. Components of romantic soul dominate the ballad "Step Outside," showing signs of influence ranging from Van Morrison to Marvin Gaye. The very upbeat "Blood Runs Hot," with a catchy little guitar intro and fierce breaks along with the Hammond B3 hovering in the background, is as funky as any James Brown recording. Left Hand Smoke are already headlining sold-out shows at top venues throughout the region, including the 1000+ capacity Showbox in Seattle, and their self-titled CD was ranked #2 in North America on amazon.com's Emerging Artists Blues Chart. At the same time, the disc has remained in the Top10 in North America on the emerging Artists Rock Chart (seven months in the Top 5). Left Hand Smoke have just scratched the surface with their brand of rockin' blues. With great harmonization's lead by vocalist Ben Mish, exalted lead guitar work of brother Will Mish and combined with the high energy of every member, Left Hand Smoke is deservingly poised for super stardom. www.lefthandsmoke.com
--- Tony Engelhart
Beyond the poor spelling on the title of Acousticly Sound 1995-2001 (No Cover Productions) from Motor City Josh, there's nothing to detract from the first class playing presented here. Josh Ford is a masterful guitarist. This acoustic set offers better proof of that than past electric albums. That he's a real fine vocalist, sometimes reminding a bit of Taj Mahal), is a bonus. Over 14 tunes covering a good chunk of the acoustic canon, he never fails to impress. From the opening "Big Boss Man" ("...you just run your mouth, that's all...") to the closing "Dangerous Dan's Boogie," on which he is joined by harmonica player Dan Mong, Josh's fingers fly. Each tune is uniquely MC Josh-stamped, and the results are magnificent. His playing on "Shake Your Money Maker" has a bit of the Peter Green version mixed in. This segues into "The Sky Is Crying," a superb slide guitar workout. His take on David Allen Coe's "The Kitty Cat Song" may step on some sensibilities, but for those who can let the PC guard down, it's hilarious. "Rollin' And Tumblin'," with foot tappin' accompaniment, re-arranges the melody line in a whole new way. "Little Red Rooster" takes the same liberties, with a quick stepping intro and jaw-dropping body. "I'm A King Bee" has a boogie backbeat that offers a fresh glimpse at the classic. "Ice Cream Man" is more of the same. The picking is just jaw-droppingly good and his nasty vocals are nearly as slick. This is not the work of a mere revisionist. Josh Ford is a man wholly involved in his music. Nothing unusual there, I guess. But the involvement here is of a superb musician, not just somebody with heart, but a man with chops to spare on top of it. Being on a small label sacrifices big time exposure, though it offers more artistic freedom. No Cover has been releasing amazing albums on a shoestring for years. This may be the best. It is certainly one of the acoustic treats of the year. To contact Motor City Josh --- www.nocover.net or www.motorcityjosh.com.
Label samplers are a win-win proposition. The listener gets a taste of the label's best at a bonus price, and the label has a dozen or so chances to sell the listener on at least one of their artists. Some samplers are good, some less so. 11 Years of Screwin' Around (Blue Suit Records) fits snuggly onto the A-list. Over nearly 72 minutes, Toledo's Blue Suit label makes a case for the importance of small labels in Blues Land. The best bands in the land are not routinely snatched up by major league labels, although they certainly do get their share. And small labels don't just develop artists to send happily away to the bigs, though this just as certainly happens. Small labels are more typically home to some of the most dynamic players on the planet. Case in point: Eddie Burns. The legendary Detroit harmonica playing guitarist and vocalist rarely plays in public anymore. Listening to the laid back boogie harp on "Dixie Boogie," ("...Doin' somethin' now I never done before/I said that I wasn't gonna play it no more...") and the superb live take on his classic "Orange Driver," the wonder of why he didn't move into a brighter spotlight is inevitable. Talent this strong just doesn't stay home. In Eddie's case, it may be a matter of not getting his props or getting the opportunity. It has never been a lack of talent that kept him off the broader international stage. He's always been an extraordinarily impressive player. He remains so in the new century. Likewise, Detroit Junior's rockin' take on Amos Milburn's "Chicken Shack Boogie" (who is that sax player!?), and live version of "How Blue Can You Get," with Maurice John Vaughn on guitar, are the epitome of stellar blues piano. There are better known players out there, but very few better players. Sir Mack Rice, the author of "Mustang Sally," is heard here on that tune, as well as on a live version of "Cadillac Assembly Line," featuring Big Jack Reynolds. Given that Mack authored "Respect Yourself" and "Cheaper To Keep Her," as well as countless other tunes, the cover is an interesting choice. Both spotlight a powerful blues performer. Other tunes from the likes of the late great Willie D. Warren ("Killing Floor"), Honeyboy Edwards ("Who May Be Your Regular Be"), Harmonica Shah ("Stubborn As A Mule"), the underexposed and wonderful Griswold Brothers ("I Love The Woman," with Jack Reynolds), Big Jack Reynolds himself ("Little Dog"), and one of Detroit's treasures, Mr. Bo ("If Trouble Was Money"), serve as wonderful calling cards for the small blues label from Toledo. There's also an energized gospel workout from The Queens of Harmony ("He's A Mighty Good God") and a rockabilly number from Ellis Kirk ("Breakup") that speak to the label's risk-taking attitude. There have been a slew of good samplers this year. This is one of the best. Keep screwin' around guys!
--- Mark E. Gallo
On his debut Blind Pig release, How'd A White Boy Get The Blues?, New York Cityís Popa Chubby proves there is unity in blues diversity. Born in the Bronx, Ted Horowitz was influenced by 1960s soul and R&B. At the age of 16 he picked up his first guitar and never put it down. In 1990, the Popa Chubby Band was born. The name was taken from an impromptu jam and embodied the spirit Horowitz wanted to put forth in his music. They landed the coveted spot as house band at the now defunct Manny's Car Wash. There, Chubby backed up and opened for many of the greats who came through town in need of a rhythm section. As a musician, the Chubby-one is as diverse as his music. On this disc he plays all of the following with proficiency and ease: acoustic guitar, dobro, bass, slide guitar, electric sitar, drums, clavinette and harmonica, while effectively handling all of the vocals. On "Daddy Played The Guitar And Mama Was A Disco Queen," he takes us down to the Delta before doing a complete 180 degree turnaround to the modern world of rap and blues. It's an autobiographical tune about how a white boy got the blues. As an enhanced CD, you also get a video of this song. Here you find a leather-clad Popa Chubby appearing in the NYC subway. He shares the vocals with Galea and resists the temptation of a "Black Hearted Woman." On the rockín blues number, "Carrying On The Torch Of The Blues," Popa pays homage to the greats. Galea appears again and this time it's with gospel-tinged backing vocals on "Time Is Killing Me." "No Comfort" is a stereotypical distorted rocker as you expect to hear from a Flying V axe wielding man. The musical images conjured up after looking at the cover art are misleading. Itís a classic case of not being able to judge a book by its cover. The music included on the 50-minute, all-original disc can best be described as modern roots music. Popa Chubby mixes the blues with rap, rock, funk and pop. There is no better time than the present to stand united in the blues the way itís played in NYC!
Ontario, California's Greg Serrato is a blues-rocker with plenty of force. On his third J-Bird Records release, Like A Tornado, he uses his strength wisely. The smokin' southpaw is known for his versatility as a writer, guitarist and vocalist. He began playing at the early age of five. By 11 he was already performing professionally. Since then, he has played with and/or shared the stage with many of the blues greats. The new self-produced disc is a 55 minute cyclone that storms throughout its 12 tracks. His rhythm section, Phil Fistori (bass) and Alan Cater (drums), provide consistent support with plenty of vigor and stamina. The muscle-bound Reno Jones Horns fatten the sound on several songs. "Your Lovin' Arms" is a mighty shuffle with a big, hefty guitar sound and smooth lead work. For the title track, it appears Serrato peeked at the sheet music of LC Davis and JW Scott's "Texas Flood" and Albert King's "Flooding In California." However it provides the opportunity for Greg to soar and sear on guitar showing his mastery of the instrument both in mellow and heavy settings. "Raised On Playing The Blues" is laced with autobiographical lyrics that acknowledge the blues greats and pay homage to them. This hot, blues-rocking number contains fuzzy sounding guitar. Serrato proves he is capable of writing top 40 material with "Into The Night." This pop-ish song is sure to appeal to the masses of roots and rock music fans. "All Along The Watchtower" is a staple from his live set. Greg couldn't resist recording it any longer. He combines the best of the Hendrix and Marino versions and adds his own spice on the CD's only cover tune. Unfortunately, it is too polished and slick failing to achieve the raw power as when performed live. As with previous releases, the instrumentals are stellar due in part to the fact that Greg's voice is not too flexible. It lacks a wide range and at times dawdles. "Phil-Billy Stomp" is a Peter Gunn-ish roadhouse romp where Greg rolls and races his dexterous fingers skillfully over the frets. Elements of West Coast bounce are present on "Foothill Blvd." Here, Serrato's twister force guitar is captured as it sounds when playing live, while the band sounds like a super tough power trio. "Backfire" is a Texas shuffle with sharp, fast and furious note picking. It contains a complicated arrangement that changes tempo several times. The Stevie Ray Vaughan and Jimi Hendrix influences are still obvious. However, unlike prior discs, they are only used as influence, they are no longer emulated. This hurricane-like disc is ideal for introducing the blues to skeptics. It proves once again that blues is not depressing music, but rather music to lift the soul. For more info, go to www.gregserrato.com or www.j-birdrecords.com.
--- Tim Holek
Itís that special time of year once again. You know that time of year when everyone seems to smile a little more and people are a little nicer to one another than they usually are, and problems are pretty much forgotten for awhile. If you havenít figured it out yet Iím talking about the biggest day on every children of all agesí calender: Christmas! Which of course would not be complete without some fine musical accompaniement provided so very appropriately this year by producer Carla Olson and the folks at Evidence Records with Blue Xmas: Christmas Blue Instrumentals. This 16-track compilation of both traditional and modern Christmas tunes is an extravaganza of blues artists brought together in various duos and trios of mainly guitar and harp experts. They are backed by an equally impressive "house" band of Denny Freeman on guitar, Phil Upchurch on bass, the very funky B3 of Deacon Jones and Alvino Bennett on drums assisting throughout. The entire cast of players on this delightful album is just too extensive to list at close to 30, so my apologies to any artist I may omit. A very funky version of "White Christmas" starts things off with the talents of Michael Hill, Roy Gaines and South Side Slim on guitar, along with the red hot harp work of Kim Wilson, who also teams up with Rusty Zinn for what I feel is the definitive version of "Blue Christmas." Jake Andrews twanging style is paired with the easy slide of Roy Rogers for a shuffling cover of "Winter Wonderland," which segues into "Iíll Be Home For Christmas" with Andrews being joined by Denny Freeman on guitar. "Silver Bells" receives a bit of a honky tonk workout with three of Southern California's finest players, Kris Wiley and Kirk "Eli" Fletcher on guitars, with the impeccable harp stylings of John "Juke" Logan being accompanied by the fastidious slide work of Joe Louis Walker. The two prettiest numbers of this collection both feature the stupendous talent of Paul Oscher, first on slide guitar on the mellow rendition of "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen" along with Guitar Shorty and the 'vocal' harp of Charlie Musslewhite, then on harp accompanied by Alvin Youngblood Hart on lap steel for a very moving version of "Little Drummer Boy." Collections of Christmas music have been around since the early days of 78s with just about every record label producing at least one at some point in their history. Blue Xmas is by no means your typical Christmas album. The production and arrangements are beautifully executed, with superior performances turned in by all the artists who contributed their talents. Ask Santa to stuff your stocking with this one or pick it up for yourself. However you acquire it, Blue Xmas will make for a very cool yule! Happy Holidays, Blues Bytes readers!
The Motor City has a reputation for bestowing upon the music world some of the finest singers modern music has come to know. Add to that list, if you will, the classy vocal stylings of a superb singer named Janiva Magness. Blues Ain't Pretty (BluesLeaf) is indeed an unusual title for an album from a very lovely lady who possesses an equally lovely voice. Whenever I have the pleasure of listening to this wonderful singer, either live or recorded, I canít help but to think of the female blues/jazz crooners of a bygone era that made you feel every note they are singing in your soul. This is what Janiva Magness does, and does ever so elegantly. Blues Ainít Pretty showcases the wide variety of styles of which Janiva is so very capable. She wastes no time in getting down to business on the album's opening title tune with her sassy but sultry delivery that captivates the listener by the first chorus. "Nobody Loves You Like Me" contains a slightly harder edge to it that is augmented by the tone-soaked fretwork of Kid Ramos, who also adds his guitar wizardry to the slow blues of "The More I Keep on Losin," which is delivered with a bit of a tongue-in-cheek atittude. "I Donít Know" is a mellow ballad filled with longing and hope that is conveyed with a conviction with which is easy to identify. "St. Gabriel" is a powerful piece of music that is a somewhat melancholy portrait of domestic violence and its unjust consequences that finds Magness at her personal best. The smoldering shuffle of "Tell Me How Do you Feel" turns up the heat a few degrees. The loose swing of "Iím Gonna Play The Honky Tonks" and the driving beat of "Tell Me What I Did Wrong" has Janiva just plain cutting loose. Supporting this very gifted lady is a very tight band composed of Kirk "Eli" Fletcher on guitar on all numbers but three, hubby Jeff Turmes on bass and tenor and baritone saxes, "Brother Red" Young on piano and B3 and David Kidda on skins. Blues Ainít Pretty is not your run of the mill blues recording. Not by a longshot. It is a well thought out production that grows more increasingly intense as it progresses through each track to finish off the listener with some high voltage blues. Janiva Magness is one of the most original singers to come along in a long time. Her phrasing and delivery, coupled with well chosen material and heartfelt emotion for that material, makes every recording she endeavors a delight from start to finish. If you havenít had the chance to hear this terrific songstress, Blues Ainít Pretty is an excellent place to start. Bravo, Ms. Magness!
--- Steve Hinrichsen
Texas Johnny Brown has a fine new independent release, Blues Defender (Choctaw Creek Records), a follow-up to his Handy-nominated effort of 1998, Nothin' But The Truth, exploring much of the same Texas blues/soul territory. However, this new disc has more original material, some of it even better, and Brown seems to be more relaxed vocally this time around. The band is even better than before and the horns seem livelier. Of course, Brown's guitar is right there, too, and his playing is always tasteful, with jazz and blues influences. He plays in the Houston blues guitar style (Pete Mayes, Clarence Hollimon, Roy Gaines, and Joe Hughes), but at the same time is very much his own man. He says a lot with a few notes. Some of my favorites on the disc are the lively "In The Dark," the horn-propelled opener "Handy Man," the beautiful instrumental "Quality Blues," the slow blues "Moanin' and Groanin'," the edgy "Just Can't Do It," and the introspective instrumental "Rained Out." As always, Brown's songwriting is top notch (he is the actual composer of the Bobby "Blue" Bland classic, "Two Steps From the Blues," often credited to Dedric Malone, and his own "There Goes The Blues"). It would be nice if the late, lamented Black Top Records were still around, because this would fit in their catalog perfectly. Though it may be hard to find, fans of the Houston sound, as well as blues guitar fans will want to grab this disc. For purchasing information, go to www.choctawcreekrecords.com.
As previously discussed, Luther Allison's tenure with Motown Records during the mid 1970s, though productive musically, was not a success financially either for Allison or Motown. Obviously, Motown was not able to promote the West Side firebrand as successfully as their straight R&B acts, so new fans were not forthcoming and blues fans at the time were put off by Allison's rock-influenced guitar and over-the-top vocals. However, Allison was one of the few blues artists recording for a major label during what was a dry spell for blues, so his lot was substantially better than many of the other practicing blues musicians at the same time. Allison's sophomore effort for Motown, Luther's Blues, has recently been reissued by Universal/Motown, along with several bonus cuts from the same period. Originally released in 1974, it shows Luther's sound, a mixture of Chicago blues, R&B, funk, and rock, almost completely developed. The only differences in this album and Allison's subsequent Alligator albums of almost two decades later is, as in his earlier releases, his dependence on covers for over half of the disc. However, in his hands, the covers take on a new life. Luther does an intense version of the Magic Sam anthem, "Easy Baby," and his take on Roosevelt Sykes' "Driving Wheel" leans more toward Junior Parker's version. The lesser-known covers, "Someday Pretty Baby" and "Part Time Love" (not the Little Johnny Taylor classic), are obscurities from the Motown vaults and are both well done. Luther's original compositions are a mixed bag. The title cut is particularly fine, with some stinging, B. B. King-influenced guitar, and a sequence in which Luther and his guitar have a conversation. "Now You Got It" and "K.T." feature a 70s funk beat underneath Allison's guitar work. The B.B. influence returns for the original album closer, "Into My Life." The real show stopper is the seven-minute "Let's Have A Little Talk," with plenty of fiery guitar and his best vocal performance on the album. Complementing the original album are three previously unreleased bonus cuts. Allison tears through Freddy King's "San-Ho-Zay" and his own "Bloomington Closing - Early Version," which would later appear in a different version on his Motown swan song, Night Life. The final bonus cut is a nineteen-minute medley from his 1973 appearance at the Ann Arbor Blues Festival, which features scorching versions of "I'm Gonna Miss My Baby," "Bad News Is Coming," and "The Thrill Is Gone," and no doubt left the audience exhausted and ecstatic. If you're a Luther Allison fan, there's no doubt that this CD is already in your collection. If you're not a fan, one listen to this CD and you will be.
Baby Boy Warren was a mainstay on the Detroit postwar blues scene through the 1950s. While many of his contemporaries might have sung better or played guitar better, few could match him as a lyricist. His wry, witty lyrics are a step above most blues composers. While touching on similar themes, they possess a maturity and depth not ordinarily found in traditional blues songs. His entire body of work has been collected by Official Records as Stop Breakin' Down. There are 22 songs, from labels such as Gotham, Staff, Swing Time, Blue Lake, Drummond, J-V-B, Excello, and even two live tracks from the 1973 Ann Arbor Blues Festival. Among the highlights are two versions of "Mattie Mae" (the second one is titled "Hello Stranger")and the two Excello tracks, "Not Welcome Any More" and the great instrumental "Chuck-A-Luck" (both featuring Sonny Boy Williamson #2, who also appears on two other tracks). Other highlights include an excellent cover of Robert Johnson's title track, but all the tracks are wonderful. The sound is consistently above average, considering that these recordings come from so many different labels. It's hard to believe that these songs haven't already been reissued to death. In addition to Sonny Boy, the other musicians on these recordings include Boogie Woogie Red or Charley Mills on piano, Calvin Frazier on second guitar, and Washboard Willie. There is also an informative biography on Warren (who died in 1977) reproduced from a 1991 Blues Unlimited article. This is a fine reissue of some of the best postwar Detroit blues this side of John Lee Hooker. It is somewhat hard to find, but can be found at www.bluebeatmusic.com.
Texas bluesman Bert Wills is a guitarist who belongs in the "Less Is More" category with other mainstays such as T-Bone Walker, Jimmie Vaughan, and Clarence Hollimon. Rather than play every lick he knows in every song, Wills gives you just enough to be wanting more, and that's what you'll be wanting after listening to his latest release, Tell Me Why (GoldRhyme Records). It's a solid mix of 14 tracks covering various styles of blues ranging from rock/blues of the title track, the Piedmont styling of "It Don't Bother Me," a neat instrumental Texas shuffle ("The Bounce"), and even some good old Delta bottleneck blues ("Roun' and Roun'"). There's even a surf instrumental ("Monkey Shine"). Wills is also a good singer, who uses his voice like he uses his guitar, never overdoing it and staying within his own limits. The highlight track, to me, was the T-Bone-influenced "Mr. Conductor." On that track, everything is as close to perfect as it can get on a blues song, with some of his best guitar and his best vocal performance on the album, too. It sounds like T-Bone might have recorded it 50 years ago. The musicians, though unidentified on my copy, are very good, particularly whoever is manning the drums and harmonica. The horns that appear on a few tracks are also excellent. This CD was quite a surprise, not at all what I expected, with some great blues guitar and vocals from a musician who has paid his dues and deserves a little recognition. This disc (and several other Wills' discs) can be purchased at www.goldrhyme.com.
Atlanta Braves announcer (and victim of multiple marriages) Skip Caray once said, "The only thing harder than being a major league umpire is being happily married." I would like to add categorizing Delbert McClinton's body of work to that list. Active since the mid 1960s, Delbert's records have been found in record stores filed in the country section, the rock section, the blues section, or even in all three at the same time. That's because he defies categorization. He grew up listening to the Grand Ole Opry, Jimmy Reed, and Bobby "Blue" Bland. His albums have always had something to offer fans of both the country and blues genres. His most recent effort, Nothing Personal, is his first for the Austin, TX label New West Records, and despite its title, may be Delbert's most personal album yet. He wrote all the cuts, which deal with the usual themes --- love, heartbreak, and pain --- and contributed some of his wonderful harmonica work, too. Standout tracks include the Mexican-flavored ballad, "When Rita Leaves" (I don't even want to know what he did to her)," "Birmingham Tonight", the funky "Gotta Get It Worked On," and "Don't Leave Home Without It" (which sounds like a Dan Penn original). He summons the ghost of Jimmy Reed for "Nothin' Lasts Forever," and blows some wicked harp. I was looking forward to finally hearing Delbert's rendition of his composition "Read Me My Rights," a great song which has been superbly covered by, among others, Ann Peebles and the late Dalton Reed. However, I was a little disappointed in his slowed-down version, probably because Dalton Reed's version (recorded in 1992) was such a powerful interpretation, but for anyone who hasn't heard the Reed version, Delbert's performance will be one of their favorite tracks on this album. Produced by Gary Nicholson, this CD sounds very much like the album Delbert McClinton has been wanting to make for a long time. It's his music, done his way.
--- Graham Clarke
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Revised: December 9, 2001 - Version 1.01
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