Now into their EIGHTH decade as a group (formed in 1939), The Blind Boys of Alabama continue to be the gold standard in gospel music. Not only have they held the standard, they have continued to make interesting, vital releases, filled with stirring vocals and
'on the money' instrumental backing (for my money, they will never eclipse their early
'90s masterpiece, the Booker T. Jones-produced Deep River). Last year, they won a Grammy for their eclectic, star-studded
Spirit of the Century, and they continue their streak of quality releases with
Higher Ground (Real World), which delves into the secular music bins for its inspiration. Among the
classic spiritual tunes covered are a moving version of Curtis Mayfield’s “People Get Ready,” Aretha Franklin’s “Spirit In the
Dark,” a rousing version of Prince’s (yes, Prince) “The Cross,” Jimmy Cliff’s “Many Rivers To
Cross,” and Stevie Wonder’s title track. There’s even a cover of Funkadelic’s “Me and My Folks” (with lead singer Clarence Fountain’s recitation of the 23rd Psalm mixed in). So how does this experiment work? For the most part, it works pretty well, although the title track is an odd mix where the vocals never seem to click with the music,
done in a psychedelic vein, and the Jimmy Cliff cover never catches fire though the potential is
there. But that’s okay, because everything else here is great. The most exciting aspects of this disc are the pairing of the Blind Boys with steel guitarist Robert Randolph and his Family Band and singer/guitarist Ben Harper. Harper contributes vocals to “People Get Ready” and some tasty guitar to a couple of other tracks. Randolph and Band lift the disc to another level. Randolph is an exponent of the “sacred steel” tradition (more on that in a bit) and his band is one of the funkiest in the business (I defy you to listen to the Funkadelic cover without at least bobbing your head). Randolph’s presence on several songs actually improves them,
particularly the previously mentioned “Many Rivers To Cross” and his pairing with Harper on “Higher
Ground.” The kicker is the closing track, “Precious Lord,” which features Fountain’s comforting vocal and Randolph’s pedal steel in what seems like a duet at times. The Blind Boys continue to make great recordings because they’re not afraid to try new things. Look for them to take the stage again, when the Grammys are presented in 2003.
It’s hard to believe that it’s been over five years since Luther Allison passed away. I remember how excited I was when he finally started receiving his due here in the U.S. after years of adulation in Europe and how frustrating it was that he didn’t survive long enough to really enjoy the accolades he now receives in his home country, but at least he did get a taste of it before his untimely death from lung cancer in 1997. Ruf Records, Allison’s European distributor, has issued a set of rare and unissued tracks covering roughly the last decade of his life, called Pay It Forward. The title refers to Allison’s philosophy, certainly a philosophy shared by other artists, of lending a helping hand to up-and-coming artists, as earlier blues musicians did for him in his beginning years. Actually, this CD is listed as “Luther Allison and Friends.” Although the music for this CD was recorded during various stages of Allison’s career, the songs blend together well, and most of them are might be recognizable to those familiar with Luther’s repertoire. Starting things off is a reggae-tinged outtake from Blue Streak (“I Wanna Be With You”). Next is a duet (“Still Called The Blues”) with longtime band mate James Solberg. The third track is a previously unreleased live gem, a wonderful cover of “Dock Of The Bay,” a longtime staple of Luther’s live act, with the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section. Other great tracks include “Perfume & Grime,” with Otis Grand, which features eight minutes of searing guitar, a funky duet with son Bernard (“Idols In Mind”), a duet with Joanna Conner (“Slipping Away”), an acoustic duet of “Nobody But You” with Frenchman (and neighbor) Patrick Verbeke, a live “Hoochie Coochie Man” with guitarist Kenn Landing, and a live version of “Love Is Free” with his European band. The liner notes are very informative, as you find out interesting facts about the songs, such as the fact that “Just As I Am,” one of the show stopper from Allison’s last studio album Reckless, was originally intended as a duet with Chicago singer Marla Glen (and that is the version that appears here as well as on the European version of Reckless). Also, Allison’s award-winning track, “Cherry Red Wine,” was supposed to be recorded with a horn section. Since the Memphis Horns were unavailable, the track was taken to Europe and recorded with the Horns of Holland, but, unfortunately, was not completed before re-mastering. That track, with horns, appears here. Also included in the notes are fond reminiscences of Luther by all the artists. This is a nice tribute by label owner Thomas Ruf to a great bluesman who left us much too soon.
--- Graham Clarke
Realizing that blues comes from the spiritual, NorthernBlues label president Fred Litwin demonstrates his deep understanding and passion for roots music with an ethereal release of Canadian gospel music, NorthernBlues Gospel Allstars. He cleverly brought together three of Canada’s biggest and most promising gospel vocalists (Hiram Joseph, Amoy Levy, Danny Brooks) and combined them with former Torontoian John Finley, added a phenomenal backing band and capped things off with legendary producer Frazier Mohawk. The finished product features 12 songs (five are originals) lasting a glorious 45 minutes. The rustic church pictured on the cover (and throughout the liner and jewel case) sets the evangelical mood, and is a reminder to all where roots music began. The revival begins with an a capella version of "Down By The Riverside," featuring the incredible vocal harmonies of Hiram and the Gospel Allstar Chorus. Let the healing begin! The Chorus includes Finley, Joseph, Levy, Brooks and Cecille Levy. Together they sound like a choir of angels and provide superior backing vocals on most selections. On "A Place Called Hope," Joseph’s vocals testify to his conviction. This guy is going to soar on the gospel charts. For further proof, listen to his riveting rendition of the well known "People Get Ready." Danny Brooks’ rusty and rigid vocals certify he is "Still Standing Tall." It is sung from the heart by someone who has been down and has been raised up. He and his acoustic guitar are featured solo on the autobiographical number "Righteous Highway." Amoy’s sweet, pure vocals won’t let listeners sit still on the jubilant "24/7/365." "The Promise" is slow and inspirational, yet it doesn’t stop John Finley from belting out the lyrics. He does the same but adds plenty of soul on the hope-filled "A Change Is Gonna Come." The saintly reprise of "Down By The Riverside" puts closure to this faithful service. The impromptu version of "We Shall Overcome" (sung by the Gospel Allstar Chorus) is a haunting memory of trouble and strife. Out of all the proficient musicians on the disc, the brilliance of Michael Fonfara illuminates the most. His emotional B3, rippling piano, compelling musical arrangements and enticing co-production are simply supreme. Litwin is not one for hashing out the same old repetitive music. He is determined to take his label where you least expect. As such, I was excited when I first learned about this project. I was ecstatic the first time that I heard it. Track after track it proves the human voice is the greatest instrument. So you think authentic gospel music can only be performed in the southern U.S. and that it has nothing to do with the blues? Experience this reverent CD and you will be Saved! For CDs, booking and information, contact: NorthernBlues Music, 225 Sterling Road, Unit 19, Toronto, ON Canada M6R 2B2 Tel (416) 536-4892 or (866) 540-0003 E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org, website: www.northernblues.com.
--- Tim Holek
Receiving this CD, Please Come Home For Christmas (Farish Street Records), was like receiving a Christmas card from an old friend. Dorothy Moore has always been one of my favorite singers, stretching back to 1976 when I first heard the incredible "Misty Blue" sung by her. I think I wore out that 45. I once took a survey at the Rhythm Room here in Phoenix as to who was the best female singer to ever appear there, and Dorothy Moore was the first choice. After many successful releases on Malaco, we now have this self-produced Christmas release, what we hope will be the beginning of a great many more new releases in the future. This release consists of two new songs written for this release and seven holiday chestnuts. Of the more familiar ones, "The Christmas Song," made famous by Nat "King" Cole, and "Please Come Home For Christmas," written by and synonymous with Charles Brown, are standouts. In the excellent liner notes by Dorothy, she recalls appearing at the Monterey Bay Blues and Heritage and hearing Charles Brown sing this in June. That's how well-known he was singing that Christmas song. Of the remaining songs, "Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas," which Dorothy says reminds her of friends that she hasn't seen in a long time, is given a beautiful rendition here. I always felt the same way about that song. "Silent Night" is here in all its glory, as is "Santa Claus Is Coming To Town." Dorothy changed the gender of "Little Drummer Boy" to "Girl," and once again reveals what a fun song it is. "One Less Chair Around The Table" is a new song by George Jackson, and is destined to become a new holiday classic. Dorothy, thank you so much for this wonderful Christmas present for your fans old and new. There is still plenty of time to get yours for this holiday season and many more to come. CDs can be ordered from Farish Street Records, P.O. Box 1217, Florence, MS 39073 or at farishstreetrecords.com.
Lost Friends (Ace Records) from Eddie & Ernie is a release that was eagerly awaited by this reviewer. Those here in Phoenix attached to the music scene were aware of the fact that Eddie & Ernie resided in Phoenix and cut many sides here, many of which had remained unreleased until now. Mainly through the efforts of Dave Godin of Ace Records (he coined the term 'deep soul') and Phoenix musicologist John Dixon, we now have this incredible overview of perhaps soul music's greatest duo of all time. It is unbelievable that so many of these tracks lay dormant until now, and that the names of Eddie Campbell (not to be confused with bluesman Eddie C. Campbell ) and Ernie Johnson (not to be confused with the current soul performer of the same name) were only known by a handful of 45s that were released on various labels through the years. With several tracks appearing on Ace's "Deep Soul Treasures" series over the last few year just whetting everyone's appetite, our own John Dixon set out to meet Ernie, who was still a resident of Phoenix (Eddie had passed on in the late '70s). To quote Ady Croasdale of Ace, "There then followed the most surreal episode of this CD's evolution, when John Dixon made contact with Ernie and armed with Ace's "Deep Soul Treasures" series, in all of which Dave Godin waxes lyrically about the duo's brilliance, showed them to Ernie and read the booklet's notes to him. Eddie had been struggling through life, suffering many hard times along the way, and to find that his work, which as far as he knew was largely forgotten, was appreciated by so much by music fans across the world was a very emotional experience for both him and John." The die had been cast. To list the best tracks or even my own personal favorites would not do justice to this release, although the soulful warbling on Dylan's "Lay Lady Lay" is running through my head as I write this. Tracks by the Phoenix Express, the New Bloods (with whom they were vocalists), plus their individual solo releases, add to the quality of this overview. To say they rivaled the extremely famous Sam & Dave would be an understatement. Eddie and Ernie were without a doubt, the finest duo of all time. To quote Ernie Johnson here in 2002, "That harmony, man, that harmony! That harmony just came through love, man, and understanding with each other..." Like those biographies written about so many music legends, here is a story that needed to be told. The fabulous selection of songs, the great re-mastering and the fantastic 20-page booklet loaded with great photos of Eddie & Ernie, pictures of the actual 45 releases, informative notes, and a comprehensive discography round out the greatest historical release in many years. Don't miss this one.
Denise LaSalle has had a long and prolific career dating back to 1971 when she burst on the scene with her huge hit "Trapped By A Thing Called Love." She has been active and popular since then, so her self appointed title of the Queen of the Blues is probably deserved but certainly open for debate. After many successful years with Malaco and a couple of releases on her own, she has signed with Ecko Records. If the quality of her new release, Still The Queen (Ecko), is any indication, we are witnessing the start of another successful phase in her career. Always a fine and topical songwriter with many a nod to the bedroom, this release follows that tried and true path. With titles such as "You Should Have Kept It In The Bedroom" or "In A Midnight Mood In The Middle of The Day," this CD should appeal to all her fans. There is even a gospel track, "There Is No Separation," which talks about 9/11 and removal of prayer in schools. It is a quite moving track and showcases her songwriting talents. She has in recent years written and recording many gospel songs like this. This is a very listenable release from start to finish, and a departure from the many Ecko releases we have reviewed over the last few years. It was recorded at Royal Studio in Memphis with real musicians, and produced by LaSalle with expert help from Archie Mitchell (Willie Mitchell's grandson). It is interesting that Willie Mitchell also produced that first hit for her in 1971. Nine of the ten songs were either written or co-written by her, so her mark is everywhere. Although my favorite track, "Unlovable Habits," talks about her man, I am glad to have this release free of Ecko's many unlovable habits, namely drum programming and synthesizers. The Queen is back with this crowning achievement.
What a pleasant surprise Tommy Thomas' You Put The Dog Ahead Of Me (Rock House Records) has been. It has been one of the regulars in the old CD player since it arrived, and is highly recommended to those lovers of chitlin' circuit southern soul/blues. Thomas wrote or shared writing credits on nine of the ten songs on this release, and there really isn't a weak track to be found. "What A Real Man Should Do" is reminiscent of Bobby Bland's "Ain't Nothing You Can Do," and "Why Didn't You Come Home Last Night" is a classic slow blues with a familiar theme. As David McIntyre of the Colorado Blues Society (Tommy Thomas is a native of Denver) comments in his liner notes, classic vocalists like Bland, O.V. Wright, James Carr and Little Milton come to mind as he listens to this CD. He didn't mention Z.Z. Hill, whose "Down Home Blues" is definitely a relative of Thomas' "Some Dirty Rat." I love "Don't Give Me No Jive Woman," with its spoken intro. Once again Roy Robert's production is impeccable (no wonder that he won the Living Blues best producer award for 2001), as are Roberts' excellent house band, this time augmented by Denver's Sammy Mayfield on guitar on the closing cut "If You Don't Love Your Woman." The deep soul "Cravin' For Your Love" should get it's share of airplay in the southern markets. If southern soul is your thing, you can get a whole day of it on Saturday on WDIA on the internet from Memphis. Check it out and be sure to get your copy of this great new release by Tommy Thomas. This release is already receiving a lot of critical acclaim, and a certainty on many best of lists for 2002. Order it from Rock House Records, 1110 Lombardy Street, Greensboro, NC 27405, or at www.rockhouserecords.com.
Patti Benson is a native Californian who moved to North Carolina, spawning the title track of this her first release, 2,666 Miles. This is a fine set of funky southern soul/blues by another new soul diva on Roy Roberts' expanding Rock House label. As on many of his other fine releases, Roberts produces and plays his mellow guitar riffs which are sure to bring a smile to your face. The excellent Mark Van Mourik adds his fine bass guitar and Rusty Smith is once again responsible for the excellent horn arrangements. Roberts has assembled a fine group of studio musicians who know how to compliment this southern blend of soul and blues. Patti lists Big Mama Thornton, Big Maybelle, Koko Taylor and Etta James as a few of her influences, but doesn't try to emulate any of them. She produces a sound that is all her own. Along with the title track, a few of my favorites are "High Price Love," the bluesy "I Can Too," and the upbeat "Single Blues." An auspicious debut from this fine new artist. I'll be looking forward to hearing more from her in the future.
It's great to have a new release from Eddie Floyd. After so many great releases on the Stax label, he was somewhat inactive in the recording studio. Well, he's back in fine style on this new release, To The Bone, on Roy Roberts' Rock House Records, and he treats us to ten new songs with not a single rehashed oldie to be heard. Some of the better known musicians to appear here are Donald "Duck" Dunn (heard on a lot of Stax recordings as part of Booker T. and the MGs) and The Original Blues Brothers Band Horns featuring Lou "Blue Lou" Marini (think of those great sax solos in the Blues Brothers movies). This release takes on a little more modern-sounding, harder soul than those Stax releases, but will satisfy even the most die-hard Stax fans. The bluesy "Maintenance Man" and "Trouble In Our Home" will appeal to the blues purist, as will the humorous "Nosey Neighbors." On the latter, Floyd voices his displeasure about his neighbor who is always checking out his woman. "I Heard It Through The Walls" is a classic style cheating song, with poor Eddie pouring out his broken heart after hearing lovemaking as he approached her door. Note: Eddie, next time call first. "You Don't Say No" and "Double Your Pleasure" both feature Eddie Floyd's son Anthony, a fine singer from whom I am sure we will hear more. I hope that Eddie Floyd's and Roy Roberts' friendship of more than 35 years produce many more fine recordings like this. Lets all "Knock On Wood." To The Bone can be ordered from www.rockhouserecords.com.
--- Alan Shutro
Doug Deming & The Jewel Tones is one of the shining lights of the Detroit blues scene. In spite of years on stages throughout the Midwest with his own band (formerly the Blue Suit Band) and roadwork with the likes of Alberta Adams and Lazy Lester, Double Down (Mighty Tiger) marks the guitarist’s breakthrough release. With cohorts Brian Miller (harp), Dale Jennings (bass) Don Greundler, Jr. (drums), and a handful of special guests, Deming breezes through a dozen superbly crafted originals like a man prepared to make his mark on a bigger map. Indeed, this stands its ground against anything released this year. The Rick Holmstrom and Steve Mugalian-produced effort was recorded in Culver City, California rather than on the home turf. While there is certainly more than a taste of left coast swing in Deming’s tone and execution, as Fred Reif points out in his concise liner notes, Deming is perhaps more influenced by Texan T-Bone Walker. From the opening lines of “Goodbye Baby,” Deming and company make it glaringly apparent that they are first-class players. Everyone shines here, and Deming and Miller interact particularly well on this uptempo number. They bring it back home for the following “Blackjack.” This is slightly more upbeat than Kenny Martin’s version on the Motor City Rhythm & Blues Pioneers set from earlier this year. Here the shades are more brilliant, if less warm. Guest Greg "Fingers" Taylor (ex of Jimmy Buffet’s Coral Reefers) proves himself a stellar blues man, as his harp lines inject “Bad For You” with a cross between Butterfield and Little Walter attitude. He returns for “Let Me Be,” on which in combination with Deming’s guitar and Denny Freeman’s piano he helps evince the classic Muddy Waters-Little Walter-Otis Spann lineup of nearly half a century ago without sounding intentional. The hipster grooves of “Make It Last,” co-written with Jennings, and the scorching “You Don’t Even Care,” a tune on which Deming sounds like he’s chasing Little Charlie Baty, again point to both the quality of the writing and playing captured here. If Greundler doesn’t call to mind Gene Krupa on the rollicking “HDF” (credited to the band) you need to get yourself back to classics school. The “Sing, Sing, Sing”-style intro is a feature for Brian Miller, who plays Benny Goodman to Greundler’s Krupa. Deming may not be the Charlie Christian in the stew, but that’s only because he laid low for the rest of the band. On “On the Midnight Shift,” courtesy of Chris Codish’s organ, the band revisits the groove of Super Sessions, while “Mr. Blues” lets Deming cut loose on the backside of Miller’s stellar harp work. “It’s A Crime” has a decidedly Elmore James groove to it, and “It’s All About the Digits” has a jazzy feel out of the Ronnie Earl book. By the closing instrumental title track, with its almost rockabilly feel, this listener was exhausted. Doug Deming may not be a household name yet, but this is the calling card of a man on his way. Double Down is one of the year’s best.
--- Mark E. Gallo
Shoot Out At The OK Chinese Restaurant (Vanguard/Farm Wire Records) by Randy Midwood is the debut disc from a talented singer/songwriter whose style falls somewhere between the genres of country-blues and alternative-country. Interestingly, it was first released in Europe a few years back, and has only just now seen its domestic release here. It's about as thoroughly American-sounding a creation as one could imagine, with traces of early Dylan, Mississippi John Hurt and other musician-poets who have worked within the folk tradition. Although the leader's sparse guitar work receives instrumental assistance from a number of California-based musicians, like fiddler Brantley Kearns (Dwight Yoakum, Dave Alvin) and drummer Don Heffington (Lone Justice, the Jayhawks), the focus here is clearly on the songs themselves, which are delivered in an almost half-spoken drawl that suggests equal parts Tom Waits and Levon Helm of the Band. All but one of the songs is original, and they all convey a sense of ironic humor mixed with melancholy that does indeed hark back to earlier styles, without sounding derivative. Midwood's compositions are probably too authentic-sounding, and at the same time a bit too "quirky," to be rendered effectively by anyone other than himself. In the past, Midwood has worked primarily as a stage actor, so not surprisingly his songs tell stories which describe the hard lives of lost souls, drifters and those who are down on their luck. Fans of Woody Guthrie, Steve Earle and Dave Alvin should be lining up for a seat at the OK Chinese Restaurant.
--- Lee Poole
Blues harmonica aficionados will want to track down the latest solo disk from Nighthawks' harp dude Mark Wenner, who is backed on Mama Tried (Right On Rhythm) by Missouri band The Bel Airs. This one starts off smokin' right away with an incendiary instrumental "If Glen Would Swing," a jumpin' shuffle number featuring Wenner's great harp blowing. The great thing about Wenner is that he refuses to be pigeonholed into any one particular musical style when he's out on his own; this CD is no exception, as he follows the opener with a bluesy version of Roy Acuff's "Walkin' After Midnight" that is darn near unrecognizable from the original. Just think about what kind of stuff Muddy Waters would have done if he had appeared on stage at the Grand Ole Opry; it's just way too cool for words. He then moves into a Motown mood with the Berry Gordy-penned "Try It Baby," a pleasant jazzy shuffle which was once recorded by Marvin Gaye. This one features tasteful, T-Bone-style guitar work from Dave Pruitt. Wenner then treats the harmonica like a sax with some soaring solos on the Bob Dylan tune "She Belongs To Me." Just to keep going in many different directions, the band then comes through with a rockin' version of Merle Haggard's "Mama Tried." This one focuses more on Wenner as a vocalist, with his gravelly singing framing a couple of good harp solos. The band collaborates on another original instrumental, a slow walkin' blues, "Howie's Hammer," that picks up steam midway through with Wenner's harp sounding like a train engine pulling along a heavy weight. Pruitt gets to show off his nice, restrained guitar playing on the midtempo shuffle "Baby "You've Got What It Takes"; this guy comes from the school of 'less is more,' a lesson that a lot of contemporary guitar players would do well to learn. While everything here is firmly based in the blues, Wenner takes it a little more basic with Jimmy Reed's "Let's Get Together." He gets the Reed vocal chops just right, and Pruitt comes in at just the right time with appropriate guitar licks, framing Wenner's singing and harp playing. Mama Tried ends much too quickly after about 38 minutes with a snaky cover of the Jr. Walker instrumental "Cleo's Mood," done in a much slower tempo than the original. With songs from Haggard, Acuff, Dylan, etc, one might be tempted to think that Mama Tried isn't really a blues disc, but this one's got deep enough roots that every blues fan will dig it. For more info, check the Right On Rhythm site at www.rightonrhythm.com or Wenner's site at www.blackdogweb.com/wenner.
One of the truly underrated Chicago blues artists over the last four decades is harmonica player Mad Dog Lester Davenport. The man who has graced the stage and recording studio with the likes of Bo Diddley, The Kinsey Report and many other Chicago performers, is a stellar recording artist in his own right. His latest, I Smell A Rat (Delmark) is good raw, unadorned Chicago blues. Among the solid backing musicians here are guitarists Jimmy Dawkins and Billy Flynn, pianists Detroit Junior and Allen Batts, and bassist Bob Stroger, all well-known names in Chicago blues circles. The hottest number is "In My Bedroom," pure unadulterated blues fun with a good resonating guitar solo by Flynn and drivin' harp from Mad Dog. Davenport shows off his instrumental talents on the slow blues "You So Sexy," which also includes nice piano from Detroit Junior, and on the uptempo instrumental "To Our Lost Ones 9/11/01." Davenport blows great chromatic harmonica on the shuffle number "West Side Blues Harp." This album is also noteworthy as a showcase for Detroit Junior's piano work, especially on the slow blues "Knocked On Every Door." It's great to realize that there are still blues cats like Davenport still on the scene today, so be sure to add I Smell A Rat to your 'must have' list.
I'm always apprehensive about long lost recordings that are unearthed and released on CD. Quite often the abysmal recording conditions and resultant sound quality outweigh the historical significance of the album. I would classify the fidelity on Rockin' Wild In Chicago (Delmark), on which the wonderful Chicago guitarist / singer Magic Sam is recorded at three different Chicago venues, as mediocre. But despite the inferior sound here, these recordings, made in 1963, 1966 and 1968, still surpass most contemporary studio recordings in the quality of the music being produced. Magic Sam, who died in 1969 at the age of 32, was without a doubt one of the best ever. This time I can ignore the bad sound and allow myself to be transported back nearly 40 years to a smoky night club in Chicago with the 16 cuts included here. Most of the cuts here are standard blues numbers, like "Further On Up The Road," "It's All Your Fault Baby," "Got My Mojo Working," "I Don't Want No Woman," and "Tore Down." Hot blues if you can tolerate less than ideal sound.
Robert Cray breathed new life into the blues when he came onto the national scene in the mid 1980s. His first couple of releases on Hightone Records launched a new era of contemporary blues, as he was followed by other young artists, such as Joe Louis Walker, James Armstrong, Kenny Neal, Larry Garner, Michael Hill and others, writing and singing songs about current day topics instead of more traditional blues subjects. The Best of Robert Cray: The Millennium Collection (MCA) is by no means a comprehensive look at his career, as it contains only 10 cuts. But for the beginner, it's a reasonably priced look back at Cray's recording career. Cuts from seven different albums are included here, including Cray standards like "Smoking Gun," "Right Next Door (Because Of Me)," "I Was Warned," "Bouncin' Back," "Some Pain, Some Shame," and "I Was Warned." A better place for the Cray beginner to start would be his 1986 Strong Persuader CD, but this one's not bad, either.
--- Bill Mitchell
The appropriate title of the latest release from Susan Tedeschi, Wait For Me (Tone Cool), is just what fans have been doing --- waiting. While the vocalist / guitarist / songwriter has shown up as a guest on many celebrated projects such as Willie Nelson’s Milk Cow Blues, Double Trouble’s Been A Long Time, and most recently on her husband Derek Trucks' Joyful Noise, it has been four years since Just Won’t Burn garnered Tedeschi a Grammy Nomination as Best New Artist. So, was Wait For Me worth the wait? Absolutely! Susan Tedeschi is by no means a straight-ahead urban blues player. Like Bonnie Raitt, she freely mixes classic R&B, blues and her own gospel and blues-flavored original songs, creating radio friendly tunes with tremendous crossover potential. The first single, “Alone,” has gone into heavy rotation on adult contemporary as well as blues radio stations across the country. Reminiscent of Just Won’t Burn, Tedeschi take the listener on a journey of somber ballads, rockin’ blues and everything in between. Her scorching guitar work is showcased on “Hampmtized” while her tender vocals are the focal point of the Bob Dylan cover “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right.” Not surprisingly, Derek Trucks appears on two tracks, “Gonna Move” and “The Feeling Music Brings,” as producer and lead guitarist. While Wait For Me flows in a similar vein as Just Won’t Burn, Tedeschi has graduated from associate producer to executive producer (Derek Trucks' presence notwithstanding) and has broadened her musical scope. Her vocals are confident and enthusiastic, while her guitar playing vacillates between smooth and sleek to raw and raunchy. After only three releases, two for Tone Cool, Susan Tedeschi has only begun to evolve. Let’s just hope it’s not such a long wait until we hear from her again.
--- Tony Engelhart
Here is a trio of new blues recordings with a swinging beat. If you have a case of the rockin' pneumonia and the boogie-woogie flu, get a dose of Bryan Lee's Six String Therapy (Justin Time). Guitar great Duke Robillard produces along with his often band member Sax Gordon. The blind guitarist has previously held a long tenure in front of live audiences in New Orleans … Mark Wenner, leader and founder of The Nighthawks, delivers some blazing harmonica on Mama Tried (Right on Rhythm). Beside the Merle Haggard title track, the album is all covers but two. As Mark Wenner and The Belairs pay tribute to their early country, folk and blues influences we get blues-rock renditions of "Walkin' After Midnight," Johnny Cash's "Big River," Junior Walker's "Cleo's Mood" and more … Rounding out our hat trick is Double Down from Doug Deming & The Jewel Tones (Mighty Tiger Records/Chase Music Group). This Detroit bluesman continues to lead his group, formerly The Blue Suit Band, through a wide spectrum of electric blues styles. Listen to this tight, focused album and you will see why Deming has been the toast of Motor City and his group a recurring backing band for Alberta Adams, Lazy Lester and the blues greats when they pass through town.
Singer and saxophonist Pat Pepin has a swinging, full-throated blues style on the independent release I'm Ready. This is an approach she shares with other musicians that initially developed musically in church choirs, as she has. Along with this she took an academic approach, eventually graduating with a B.S. in Jazz and Contemporary Music from the University of Maine. Her vocal skills thus honed gainer her attention in the novelty a cappella group Twatones. Here she uses her knowledge and experience to deliver upbeat, swinging blues for great entertainment. Artist web site, www.patpepin.com.
--- Thomas Schulte
The question of the relevance of the British blues is one that can lead blues fans into serious and heated arguments. No one questions its historical importance. At a time when only hardcore collectors knew anything about the blues in the U.S. and when the main audience for the blues, the Black population, was rapidly shifting its attention elsewhere, it took young, loud kids in England to make young-sounding and definitely loud music based on the blues for other young and loud kids to make Americans aware of the wealth that was in their midst, thereby saving the blues from extinction. But at the same time, with the stiffness of the rhythm section that gradually weighted the music down, and especially with the introduction of the improvised, jazz-derived long solos (mostly on guitar), one could argue that the British blues boom was a terrible disservice to the blues. Whether we should view the British blues (which is usually some form or another of blues-rock) as real blues is not a given to all blues fans --- such is the love-hate relationship with this type of music. Hoochie Coochie Men: A History of UK Blues and R&B – 1955-2001 (Indigo Records) is a four-CD boxed set that will go a long way towards a reassessment of the artistic importance of the British blues. Even though the most important group in the genre, The Rolling Stones, are absent from this retrospective (as are Cream, Led Zeppelin and Ten Years After, and also, if we’re talking about contemporary artists, Otis Grand), the compilers and producers have done a fantastic job of mixing the great and the obscure, the slow and painful with the hectic and joyful, the guitar-oriented rock-blues and the piano-based boogie-blues. They are able to paint a picture as complete as possible, and as faithful as possible, of the evolution of the style, from the exotic folk-blues of Lonnie Donegan in the mid '50s to the energetic but bordering on generic blues-rock of Gary Moore. The most vital music is definitely that of the first two CDs, which cover the important decade of the '60s. The playing was loud while not particularly precise, but the enthusiasm and energy are irresistible. Aside from The Yardbirds, John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers and Fleetwood Mac, you’ll find strong tracks from The Kinks, Cyril Davies and his R&B All Stars, The Pretty Things, The Primitives, etc. The emphasis is clearly on a garage sound, full of distortion and barely controlled emotions. Though there are good acoustic songs (Jo Ann Kelly steals the show a few times), these first two discs work just fine as a primer on the birth of so-called “classic rock,” the blues-based rock that, through the influence of the Stones, conquered the AM and FM waves. Disc three, covering a period of roughly 10 years from the end of the '60s to the end of the '70s, is probably better played, better sung and certainly better produced than the first two, but the music is not as exhilarating. Still, “Drinkin’ Wine Spo-Dee-O-Dee” by The Pirates is probably the closest the blues ever came to punk music, a real eye-opener. The '90s are highlighted on Disc four (the '80s are totally absent), where you’ll hear the inflationist guitar solos take over. Not that these are not perfectly played, but they’re just predictable, which is an adjective you could never use with the best music of the first three CDs of this set. In addition, Roy Bainton’s notes are informative and fun to read, and the numerous vintage photos and assorted memorabilia are a real treasure to blues fans. Really, in spite of the big names that are absent from it, Hoochie Coochie Men is a close to perfect presentation of the British blues, and a source of countless discoveries.
Keyboardist Jon Cleary is a hot commodity; he’s been prominently featured in Taj Mahal’s and Bonnie Raitt’s bands, where his masterful runs and command of blues and soul stylings make him a star attraction of his own. He’s so busy touring in other people’s bands and playing on other people’s records that his own band, Jon Cleary & The Absolute Monster Gentlemen, is basically known only in his adopted hometown of New Orleans. His band’s self-titled effort on Basin Street Records is a soul effort (only the boogie-based “Take my Love” is truly blues) that somehow disappoints; a little light, a little too pop? Let’s just say that the best known Cleary-penned song on the album, “Fanning the Flames,” was previously recorded by Taj Mahal and Maria Muldaur, and that Cleary’s version of it is blander than that of Muldaur. Still, there’s plenty of keyboard prowess to relish here, but this CD simply didn’t make much of an impression on this reviewer.
In Montreal where I live, the longest running and most respected blues label (it’s actually a jazz and blues label) is by far Justin Time. Blues fans are especially fond of the subsidiary Just A Memory label, which puts out historical live performances (often recorded on crude hand-held tapes) that were given in the city by visiting bluesmen. One artist who’s been well represented is James Cotton, who was recorded by blues enthusiast Michael Neremberg at the end of a six-week engagement at the 1967 Montreal Expo (the world's fair). Cotton’s records on the label (Seems Like Yesterday, Late Night Blues and It Was a Very Good Year) all stemmed from a single night (there was an early set, for tourists and such, and a late set, for the hardcore fans), September 28, 1967. It only made sense, then, to issue Midnight Creeper (subtitled The Complete 1967 Live Montreal James Cotton Sessions), a two-CD set that includes everything that was previously put out on the first three CDs of the series. In a word, if you’ve bought all three records, you’ve been had, as you could have gotten your hand on all these recordings for the price of one two-CD package. (Only the sequencing of the songs has changed.) This complaint aside, this release has the same qualities and flaws as the other three Cotton CDs; to summarize, important historical value (as the first live recordings of the barely six-month old Cotton band, after Cotton had left the employ of Muddy Waters) and relatively poor sound quality.
There has been a few good and very good blues and blues-based records from Montreal-based artists in recent weeks. Adam Karch is a young and flashy left-handed guitarist and average singer whose sound and style has often been compared to that of Colin James. Crossroad Diaries is his first CD, after quite a few years playing around town, released on Justin Time. Featuring only original compositions, it goes from swing-blues to rockabilly-derived material, and from power blues to Bryan Adams sound-alike ballads; no song is really strong enough to get stuck in your mind, but everything is perfectly played, no matter the style.
Veteran Bob Walsh, a powerful and moving singer and adequate rhythm guitarist, has chosen the opposite approach for his fifth album, called B•L•U•E•S (on the independent LionSoleil label; www-audio-occasion.qc.ca), choosing to record only covers, with a few friends as guest lead guitarists (the best-known being Jeff Healey). The record doesn’t really suggest any new reading of the material covered, except maybe on Paul Butterfield Blues Band’s “Born in Chicago.” At 70 minutes plus, the CD is a little too long for what it has to offer.
The best record to come out from local blues and roots artists is Rob Lutes’ Middle Ground (independent; see www.roblutes.com). Lutes is a strong singer / songwriter with a compelling “strangled” voice whose music feels bluesy and country without adhering to any format. With long-time accomplice Rob MacDonald handling lead guitar duties, the sound is twangy and somehow Southern; the songs are considerably sadder than on Lutes’ debut, Gravity, but both albums are very strong. Among roots performers around Montreal, I know of no one performing better material.
Finally, let’s mention the David Wilcox Rockin’ the Boogie: Best Blues and Boogie compilation, released on Stony Plain. Born in Montreal, Wilcox went on to play in Ian & Sylvia’s great '60s folk-rock band, he’s made country records, and he’s made blues-based records in his 30-plus career. As the title of the compilation implies, this offers a survey of his blues output (as well as giving a good dose of Wilcox’ sense of humor), and it’s undeniably a lot of fun in a rockin’, George Thorogood way. Except Wilcox is definitely a much better guitarist than Thorogood.
--- Benoît Brière
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Revised: November 30, 2002 - Version 1.00
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