Blues Bytes

December 2003

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What's New

Ellis HooksThe hardest part about reviewing CDs is remaining objective. When an artist comes along that completely blows you away like Ellis Hooks, how can you be objective?! Producer (and Hammond C3 organist) Jon Tiven draws attention to Ellis’ immense European popularity. "Ellis Hooks … has attracted the attention of the BBC, London Times and Time Out." This relatively unknown Mobile, Alabama artist is the offspring of a full Cherokee mother and a father of African American descent. As a child, it was all work and no play. At 14, Ellis was thrown out of the household since his strict Baptist family was not enamored by secular music. He hitch-hiked across the U.S., traveled the world busking, and settled in New York. He was contemplating becoming a preacher when a chance meeting with Tiven changed his life. Like Robert Randolph, Hooks’ sound is fresh yet rooted in the blues. He will appeal to new and veteran roots music fans alike. The 47 minutes on Up Your Mind (Evidence) are some of the most enjoyable minutes of the year! 13 densely textured tracks are included and all were written by Hooks with the assistance of the Tivens and Sandy Carroll. Each segues right into the next. At least two are worthy of a Song of the Year nomination. Throughout, just like a great ‘60s soul album, there is a real focus on Hooks’ powerful chops, which are a cross between James Brown, Lenny Kravitz and Steve Marriott. Ellis claims heir to the rock and soul crown on the title track alone where Jon Tiven’s wah-wahing psychedelic guitar is astonishing. "Eight Months Ago Today" is contemporary, slow blues. The tune is so emotional, you’ll experience his pain without needing to listen to the sorrowful lyrics. Looking for retro-funk? Check out the super hip "Holding Out My Love." This ain’t greasy kids stuff. Its the kind of song that used to make listening to FM radio a pleasure. The autobiographical "Man Of The Blues" is a vocal duet with Freddie Scott who sounds a bit like Syl Johnson. "Controlling Picasso" is simply brilliant. It showcases Ellis’ radical vocals and renegade acoustic guitar with Latino elements and Eddie Torres’ heavy percussion. On the repetitive "Last Chance For Happiness," it’s time to get down. Here, Sally Tiven’s heavy bass will force you from your chair. The swift undercurrent flows via a myriad of drummers. "Black Wolf Bone" is a prime example of roots music renaissance. Throughout, Mason Casey’s inconspicuous harmonica adds relevance. This CD is a bit too polished, e.g., "Down For The Last Time" and over-produced, e.g., "Still Waiting." It may be a bit too fashionable but its just what the blues needs to keep it from becoming stagnant. You’ll love the arrangements and the absolutely edgy guitar. This unique and ultra-modern combination of rock, soul and blues ain’t the same ole blues. However, it will inspire you that blues and soul has survived, albeit in a completely different setting from its foundation. This is what musical evolution is all about. The 29-year-old cat proclaims, "If you want to categorize it, you can but I don’t. I just do it." If this CD doesn’t receive a few Handy nominations there is something wrong with the nomination process. For further information, contact: Evidence Music Inc., 1110 E. Hector Street, Suite 392, Conshohocken, PA 19428 USA Tel: (610) 832-0844 Email: Website:

Blues In The Mississippi NightThe legacy of Alan Lomax stretches far beyond a few simple 1930s field recordings. He was able to be accepted into the black man’s world, and African-Americans felt comfortable enough to talk about the real South with him. In 1947 he recorded three blues greats (Big Bill Broonzy, Memphis Slim & Sonny Boy Williamson) not only in song but in conversation. It was so controversial, the original release of Blues In The Mississippi Night Featuring Big Bill Broonzy, Memphis Slim, Sonny Boy Williamson (Rounder) was delayed to 1959 at which time (due to the frank and discerning dialogue), the identity of the blues trio was suppressed to protect them. Out of print on CD for more than 10 years, 11 musical tracks are included on the 55-minute historic disc which includes one previously unreleased number and 33 minutes of discussion. You may enjoy the liner as much as the narrative! All the details about these recordings (as written by Lomax), complete song and conversation transcripts, detailed footnotes and artist biographies (written by Matt Barton) all interspersed with archival photos are included in the extensive 40 page liner. In the liner, Lomax refers to these bluesmen: "They search for meaning of the songs they love. They began with the blues as a record of the problems of love and women in the Delta. They recalled the challenges of life in the Mississippi work camps (and became) overwhelmed by the absurdities of the Southern system they had described. Here, at last, they had put on record the unknown Southern story." Listeners are compelled to ponder what it is about the South that appeals to them? Slim’s pounding piano and strong vocals out power Broonzy’s raw, country guitar, and Williamson’s multiple octave harp on "Life Is Like That" which is a tune very typical of the era. On "Stackalee," Slim’s vocals are expressive while the lyrics are gruesome, and segue from dialogue about killings. "Fast Boogie" features the barrelhouse solo piano of Memphis Slim. Bill is absent on the traditional blues "I Could Hear My Name Ringin’," where Sonny Boy (John Lee) sings. However Broonzy is the only one present on "Black, Brown And White Blues." It is a sad but true reflection of the times these men lived in. The words tell it all: "If you’s white, should be all right, if you’s brown, stick around, if you’s black …,get back, get back, get back." Other numbers include the short but painful "Lining Hymn" by the Rose Hill Baptist Church congregation and a field holler, "O ‘Berta," from Parchman Farm. This historical chronicle exposes the listener to the desperate conditions that gave birth to the blues. On certain parts, hiss can’t be avoided given the age of the recordings, but, overall, they are fairly clear. This CD is not for the casual blues listener. Since less than half is music, it won’t be the first to be selected from the CD stand. However, the stories told need to be passed from generation to generation. For those listening to the current blues series on national public radio, this CD could easily have made its own episode. Yes, Lomax was that much a head of his time. This is part of the Alan Lomax Collection which is planned to include more than 150 albums comprising several musical styles. For CDs and information, contact: and

Glamour PussNew Brunswick’s Glamour Puss has three previous CDs. The five-piece group has been nominated for and/or won many awards for their contemporary, eclectic mix of roots music. Recently, they received four Maple Blues Award nominations for the seventh annual edition to be held January, 2004. Two of the nominations (best recording and best producer) are for the new CD, Wire & Wood. Their 52-minute debut release for NorthernBlues Music features the label’s usual fantastic liner. This one is multi-colored, very informative, folds out several times and includes the lyrics of the 15 tracks. Ron Dupuis (drums), Travis Furlong (guitar), Paul Boudreau (bass), Roger Cormier (keys, accordion, harp) and Don Rodgers (sax) combine their unrestrained talents to create happy, upbeat, groovin’ music that celebrates life. Montreal blues artist, Michael Jerome Brown, handles production and contributes rhythm guitar, fiddle, triangle and harmony vocals. Throughout, the brass is enriched thanks to Phillipe Lucy (sax) and Roland Bourgeois (trumpet). On this innovative disc, Glamour Puss thinks outside the blues box and covers a lot of musical ground. All members sing but the liner fails to indicate who sings which tracks. This would have been nice to know since they don’t share the same smarts as individual singers. The new songs are based on everyday experiences such as moving, searching for a lost pet and being in love. It’s the horns that grab you initially on "Kitty Kitty." They are quickly augmented by the responsive rhythm of keys and guitar notes. "Don’t You Worry" is heavy blues-rock in the vein of Walter Trout. Short, stinging guitar solos are played after each line of every verse while the organ provides groovy fills. New Orleans meets the Mississippi Delta on "You’re Rich I’m Poor." A crawfish festival comes to mind when you hear the Acadian, foot-stomper "Maman Don’t Play No Zydeco." One verse is sung in French while the entire song gets an all-French lyric workout at disc’s end. The heavy "Dangereuse" is also sung entirely in French. Here, Don’s sax does its best to sound haunting and frightening though it’s absence may have resulted in a more eerie sound. The sole cover is John Lee Hooker’s "Boom Boom," which was selected by the group’s manager. Don’t expect the usual in-your-face, high-strung, guitar version. "If You Miss Me" is a slow blues worthy of being sung by Bessie Smith, while "Million-Air" most closely matches the pattern of traditional blues. The title track is a love song to Travis’ favorite thing – his guitar. Throughout the CD his guitar work is stellar, but it shines on the acoustic instrumental "Blues For Sheila," which has challenging and interesting timing. All tunes are in the three minute range. There are no extended solos and no chance to get bored with any of the songs. Along the way, you’ll encounter plenty of jumpy and punchy rhythms that will have you hopping out of your chair and creating an instant dance party. You’ll especially enjoy the riveting songwriting, articulate guitar, simmering keys, Staxville horns and admirable production. If you are searching for the definitive 12 bar blues band, these guys aren’t that. Glamour Puss borrows from all American roots music and creates a party that offers something for everyone. Awards are sure to abound from this recording. The band’s sound is unique in the current music sea of fabrication. Your only concern will be why you didn’t get hip to them years ago. Forget the theory of a blues/hip-hop marriage to be the future of blues. Glamour Puss is laying down the future of blues and roots right now. For CDs, booking and information, contact: NorthernBlues Music, 225 Sterling Road, Unit 19, Toronto, ON Canada M6R 2B2, Tel (866) 540-0003, Website:, Band website:

Wes MackeyReal blues can be so soul soothing, it’s interesting that South Carolina’s Wes Mackey didn’t put more of it on Second Chance (Bluesline Entertainment). His biography states he grew up listening to the last of the itinerant, Mississippi Delta bluesmen in the 1950s and 1960s, but you’d never know that by listening to the 10 tracks on this CD. Three were written by his co-executive producer, while the two join forces on one song with the rest being covers. Over 40 years ago, Wes Mackey began playing blues, but he has been absent from the stage and recording industry for many years. During that period, he spent time in both of Canada’s coasts. Second Chance was recorded in Vancouver, BC, with multiple producers and some of the country’s best artists. The liner credits are sketchy but they list the following: Robbie King and Kenny Wayne (keyboards), Jack Lavin (bass), Darrell Mayes (drums) and David Say (sax). Wes performs bass foot pedals, guitar and sings lead. The CD starts off strongly with lots of energy and rhythm on "Lonely Man," but this isn’t maintained. Although "Rock Me Baby" has been over-recorded, Wes puts his own twist on it. His guitar is heartfelt and authentic on these two opening numbers. "Bluesman" is far too manufactured and its backing vocals are out of place. The keyboards are great on "Outskirts of Town," but they are too faint and the drums sound like they came from a machine. Carl Weathersby’s "Sweet Music" is turned into bubble gum pop. "Wham Bam" is a strong R&B number, but the backing vocals sound straight out of Vegas. The lyrics state to "play it like a bluesman should" and occasionally Wes does, but he has to play in this fashion more often. So many musical styles are included on this brief, 38-minute disc, Mackey doesn’t get an opportunity to master any of them. Sporadically, he plays authentic blues guitar, but the fabricated sounding drums are not the proper accompaniment. Wes is a mature musician, but this recording doesn’t live up to that stature. He is an artist worthy of a second chance, so wait until he releases another disc before checking him out. For CDs, booking and information, contact:

--- Tim Holek

Skeeter BrandonIt's been much too long in between Skeeter Brandon CDs, the last release was given a glowing review by Bill Mitchell in the May 1999 issue of Blues Bytes. Brandon's new release. It's Good to Go (Rock House Records), is worthy of another glowing review. Now affiliated with Roy Robert's Rock House Records after four enjoyable releases on the New Moon label (those releases were with his band Highway 61), we now have a band comprised of Brandon on vocals and keyboards, Roberts on guitar, Mark Van Mourik on bass and guitar, Harvey Mitchell on drums, and Rusty Smith and Scott Adair on horns. Those supporting musicians have become the Roberts' house band on most of his Rock House releases. One again we are made aware of Brandon's gospel upbringing. The expressive emotional vocals along with churchy organ fills follow the successful path he has traveled on his earlier releases. The songs are new and fresh sounding, with five penned by Brandon and four by Roberts. The only cover is the great Jimmy Hughes deep soul classic "Why Not Tonight." Production by Roberts is impeccable, showing why he earned Living Blues magazine's 2002 Critics Award for Producer of the Year. The opening track, "It's Good To Go," is an upbeat catchy tune that ends with Brandon rapping a bit. It an interesting track that leads us into the album's first ballad, "The Way Love Goes," which allows Brandon to stretch out vocally. The third track is a bluesy, upbeat "Me And My Baby," as is "You Can't Have It Your Way," both penned by Roberts. Track six is the Hughes number, and it is the epitome of what a deep Southern soul ballad should be, and why this tune is a classic. Great vocal, great horns and that churchy organ makes this the album's killer track, but in all honesty, there are no bad tracks here at all. I also liked the country sounding "I Truly Love You," which shows the versatility of Brandon's singing. A fine release to add to your shopping list. Check out this release and the other Rock House artists at It's a fun site.

I Wanna Have Some Fun is the third release Rick Lawson has on Ecko Records, and this new effort is his strongest to date. With last year's Pride & Joy reviewed in the October 2002 Blues Bytes, the continuing maturity of a emerging star was apparent, and this release takes it a step further. Lawson wrote four of the ten songs. I Wanna Have Some Fun opens with two originals, starting with the cute "She's Havin' A Love Affair" ... this time on the telephone. Rick bemoans "...I don't know who he or she might be, but she was doing things on the telephone, she never did with me..." The danceable "It's Party Time" follows, and as the title pretty much says it all. The 5:06 slow burner "You Are My Friend" is a strong John Ward /Marshall Jones composition and perhaps the highlight of this release. Another winning track is "One More Hurt," with a catchy hook that should get some airplay. Ecko Records continues with the programmed sound we have been accustomed to, although an occasional live musician does appear on several tracks. I'm sure that Rick Lawson has started to acquire a loyal following, and his live shows reveal a potential star in the making. It will be interesting to follow this young man on his journey.  

Toni GreenI have always been a huge Shirley Brown fan, way back to her "Woman To Woman" hit and all her subsequent albums. So when I first heard Toni Green, it was like hearing a young Shirley Brown all over again. Of course, that was three releases ago. My revue of her Soul Trax CD in the January 1999 Blues Bytes said "watch this lady in the future." I reviewed her second CD in the March 2002 issue of Blues Bytes and, although I gave it a favorable review, I felt she was trying to find her musical direction. She didn't know whether she wanted to follow the Shirley Brown path or the Mary J. Blige path. Southern Soul Music's title proclaims that she has chosen the former on this new Good Time Records release. Make no mistake though, this is not an old school release but one that takes Southern soul to a more contemporary level. Produced in Memphis by Lawrence Harper, it takes the Hi Records sound of Willie Mitchell and evokes a new spirit to it. Let's say Hi 2003. The CD opens with "Southern Soul Music," a medium-paced tune that defines the very essence of what this music is all about, and who is better to teach it than Toni Green. This is followed by the first ballad "Wish I Could Be There," a track that lets Toni wail as only she can. "I Want It" is a sexy duet with Floyd Taylor (Johnnie's son), which opens with a nice spoken intro by Toni. By the time we get to track six, we are ready for another ballad ... and does Toni deliver this time! "Just Ain't Working Out" is a heart stopper. It's one of those classic songs that will be played on soul radio from this day on. That's how good this track is. Another standout track is "Single Mothers," on which Toni pays homage to those brave women. It's another ballad that allows her to stretch out and wail. This is a well balanced CD with excellent songs that reveal Toni Green to be a singer at the height of her powers. "Southern Soul Music" will keep us anxiously awaiting more from this fine diva. A certain addition to my top CDs of the year list, and one I can highly recommend as one of this year's stocking stuffers.

--- Alan Shutro

Around the same time PBS was broadcasting Martin Scorsese’s series on the Blues, PBS was also running another documentary on the Blues. Though not as massive an undertaking, it was a very ambitious attempt to encapsulate the history of the blues into a two-hour segment and, in some ways, it was just as successful as (and definitely more comprehensive than) the more heralded Scorsese series. The documentary, entitled Blues Story, was actually proposed as a multipart series (similar to the Ken Burns Jazz series) to PBS shortly before the Scorsese series was proposed, but as you might imagine, the Scorsese series received the bulk of funding. Blues Story, despite its brevity, captured some great performances and interviews of many of the legends of the Blues. Shout! Factory has released a two-CD soundtrack of sorts and Blues Story features selections by such pre-war luminaries as Mamie Smith, Blind Lemon Jefferson (“Match Box Blues”), Blind Blake, Ma Rainey, Charley Patton, Tommy Johnson (the chilling “Canned Heat Blues”), Bessie Smith, and Son House (“Walking Blues”). They are joined by tracks of such immortals as Lowell Fulson, Louis Jordan, T-Bone Walker (“Stormy Monday Blues“), Muddy Waters, B. B. King, Little Walter (“Rollin‘ and Tumblin‘” from his exciting early '50s session, now on Delmark), Albert King, John Lee Hooker, Buddy Guy, and Otis Rush. Although not all these performances (38 in all) are the original versions that made the songs standards (for example, the Muddy Waters’ track “Hoochie Coochie Man” is from his 1970s tenure with CBS Records, and Fulson’s classic “Reconsider Baby” is from his Stony Plain recording), they are great versions which do nothing to diminish the originals. In addition, there is an excellent essay by Living Blues co-founder Jim O’Neal, who assisted in production of the documentary. Though Blues Story may not be all-inclusive (incredibly, there is no sign of a Robert Johnson track to be found), this is an excellent cross-section of songs and artists who matter in the Blues and would be an excellent way for a neophyte to get a capsule summary of what the Blues was and is. Look also for the DVD, which, I’m told, features extra footage not shown on PBS during the original broadcast.

Chicago's Vance Kelly, still unrecorded by a label from his home country, has a new live recording on Austria-based Wolf Records. The disc, Live at Lee's Unleaded Blues, captures a fairly typical Vance Kelly show with his band, the Backstreet Blues Band. Kelly is a member of a rare breed of bluesman who appeals to both the Chitlin' Circuit crowd with his soulful vocals and a set list that draws heavily from soul/blues via Malaco Records and also to what is considered to be the contemporary blues crowd who likes a lot of meaty guitar with their blues. Fans of both styles will find plenty to savor here, with tasty covers of songs by Johnnie Taylor ("Wall To Wall"), Z.Z. Hill ("Steppin' Out"), Lattimore ("Let's Straighten It Out") and Bobby Bland ("Members Only"), all time-tested and fan-approved. But Kelly's solid fretwork and pliable vocals lift them out of familiar territory. Kelly also gives a nod to Motown with a cover of Marvin Gaye's "Pride and Joy" and a nifty cover of A. C. Reed's "She's Fine," which features some of his best guitar, along with his own "Tell Me Why." The only real misfire on the disc is the closing track, the 14 millionth cover of B. B. King's "The Thrill Is Gone," and a pretty routine, by-the-book cover at that. Oh well, at least he didn't do "The Blues Is Alright." The band does a pretty good job backing Kelly, though the horns are a bit out of tune on a couple of tracks, which has been known to happen to bands in a club setting. Those minor quibbles aside, Live at Lee's Unleaded Blues is an enjoyable look at a Chicago blues band working in their normal environment, which has become something of a rarity these days on disc. If you've missed out on Vance Kelly so far, this is not a bad place to start.

--- Graham Clarke

J Street JumpersMany of the cats that make up the J Street Jumpers were playing swing and jump blues before it was fashionable to do so, dating back to when many of its members were with the Uptown Rhythm Kings. A lot of bands riding the retro swing craze a few years have put their zoot suits and fedoras back into the closet to don whatever threads required for whatever music is hot for the moment. But not this Washington, D.C.-based ensemble. They're still pumping out tight, high quality blues/jazz for the dance crowd ... and doing it very well, as evidenced by the 13 cuts on Good For Stompin' (Severn Records). The title cut, a red hot instrumental featuring solos from all four horns (Charlie Hubel and Don Lerman on saxes, Vince McCool on trumpet, Steve Shaw on trombone), sets the tone for this album right from the start. It's all about the horns, or at least that's what you get until guitarist Rusty Bogart butts in with hot West Coast picking. Singer Carmen Velarde first steps to the microphone on the very '40-ish sounding "Destination Moon"; she's got a beautiful voice, well-suited for this vintage material. "I Don't Want To Set The World On Fire" also evokes memories of WWII-era dance clubs, with the horns leading into Velarde's assured, almost sassy vocals. Velarde's not the only fine singer in this band; pianist Arthur Gerstein takes the lead vocals on the suggestive jump blues, "I Want You I Need You," and later on Jimmy Liggins' "Boogie Woogie King." Gerstein's voice doesn't have the power of the legendary blues shouters but he acquits himself quite well, and he's an absolute monster on the 88s on the latter cut. The band delivers more of a swamp pop sound on "I Don't Hurt Anymore" while still maintaining an uptown sophistication. Velarde is also convincing as the scorned little girl pledging to be good until her man sees the light on "Til My Baby Comes Back To Me." The disc closes with Velarde putting a large measure of sass into her voice on "That's All." Bogart contributes a tasty blues guitar solo smack dab in the middle of this one. These cats were swingin' before it was cool and are can still jump with the best of them. If this is your cup of tea, then don't miss the J Street Jumpers' Good For Stompin'.

Did I hear you right? You say that you don't have any Slim Harpo CDs in your collection? Then it's not a real blues library without something from the master of Louisiana swamp blues. The Excello Singles Anthology (Hip-O) includes all 44 historic singles released by Excello Records. These sides were recorded in now-famous locations like Crowley, Louisiana, the Royal Recording Studio in Memphis, Fame Recording Studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, Woodland Sound Studios in Nashville, and Deep South Recording Studio in Baton Rouge. Everything is here --- all of the hits that were later covered by bands like The Rolling Stones, The Kinks, The Yardbirds, The Fabulous Thunderbirds, and others. As a singer, Harpo (aka James Moore) was pretty one-dimensional, with every vocal performance delivered in the same nasally, hypnotic style, framed by his echo-y harmonica. But one can listen to the two discs back to back and not get bored by the sameness of the sound --- the music is that good! Harpo's big hits included "I'm A King Bee," "I Got Love If You Want It," the mournful "Rainin' In My Heart," the playful "Scratch My Back," "Shake Your Hips," "Tip On In" (parts one & two), "Te-Ni-Nee-Ni-Nu," and more, and of course they're all here. One of my all-time favorites, "Blues Hangover," is just one of the coolest songs ever recorded. I used it as the theme on my radio show back in the good ol' days of radio. When Slim Harpo sings, "I didn't have change for a grasshopper," you'll flip out. The Excello Singles Anthology is an absolutely essential purchase for ALL blues fans.

J.T. RossA pleasant surprise comes our way from Southern California in the form of J.T. Ross, with his debut CD, Loaded (South Side Records). Harmonica player / singer Ross is backed by the cream of the crop of L.A.-based session dudes, including John Marx (guitar), Rick Reed (bass), Steve F'Dor (piano) and Paul Fasulo (drums). While not a powerhouse singer, Ross is more than adequate, and he performs quite well on harmonica. Like many other contemporary West Coast blues bands, this ensemble carries a lot of influence from bands like Rod Piazza & the Mighty Flyers, William Clarke, James Harman, etc. In fact, one of the stronger numbers on Loaded is a version of Clarke's "Pawnshop Bound." "If I Get Lucky" is highlighted by incendiary guitar work from Marx, who is just as much of a star on this disc as Ross. Ross really tears it up on the chromatic harmonica on the upbeat instrumental "Doggin'"; this tune, more than any other, shows that he's ready to take his place with the other Southern California harp stars. Both Marx and F'dor get plenty of solo time on the mid-tempo, restrained blues of "Too Much Crime In The City." The album closes with another fine instrumental, the slow blues "Top Hat," which again allows Ross to demonstrate his prowess on the chromatic harp. Overall, Loaded is a very satisfying blues album. Keep a close watch on Ross in the future.

--- Bill Mitchell

Taking the idea behind 2001’s album Along for the Ride to the stage, John Mayall has come up with another guest-studded effort, titled 70th Birthday Concert and officially credited to John Mayall & The Bluesbreakers and Friends (on Eagle Records), said friends being Eric Clapton, Mick Taylor and Chris Barber. This double album was recorded this past summer in Liverpool. The concert, in addition to celebrating Mayall's 70th birthday, served as a sort of voyage through Mayall’s past, as ex-Bluesbreakers Taylor and Clapton’s presence was the occasion for dusting off a few '60s classics from the dean of British blues’ repertoire. After a couple of tunes from the Bluesbreakers without their leader, with current guitarist Buddy Whittington singing (impressively, I might add), Mayall comes on to perform three cuts from last year’s Stories album. The man was never a great singer, and at 70 he has not improved, which makes for a strange feeling: the star of the show is clearly upstaged by his guitarist (the fact that the mix seems to put Whittington’s backup vocals higher up compared to Mayall’s lead doesn’t help). But Mayall grows on you, and by the second disc you’re so used to his strained voice that you actually find him pretty good on Otis Rush’s “All Your Love,” performed here as on the 1965 self-titled album with Eric Clapton. (The real vocal highlight comes on the Little Walter tune “It Ain’t Right,” with Mayall at his inventive best when scatting solo.) Most of Disc one finds the Bluesbreakers augmented by Taylor, with Disc two spotlighting Clapton. All in all, this is classy blues-rock with occasional jazzy overtones (trombonist Chris Barber, though rightly credited with bringing the first American blues artists to Britain in the ‘50s, is really a jazz player). Its main drawback is that there are arguably too many overlong solo spots; “Have You Heard” stretches well past the 17-minute mark, and two more songs top the 12-minute mark. Still, every player is clearly in fine form and inspired by all the great company, and the whole concert, at 2 1/2 hours, is a joy from start to finish. Recommended. (

From John Mayall’s 70th birthday to another, more widely celebrated anniversary: Jesus Christ’s 2003rd. The Blind Boys of Alabama add their bit to the Christmas album tradition with Go Tell It on the Mountain (Real World Records), an entertaining but wildly uneven record. The problem lies not in the Blind Boys’ performance, but rather in the odd mix of their traditional style with some of their high-profile guests. (In all fairness, we can add that even they can’t do anything to save “The Christmas Song,” done as a duet between Clarence Fountain and country chanteuse Shelby Lynne; mercifully, the song is very short). Best results are, unsurprisingly, to be found in collaborations with Solomon Burke (on Harry Connick Jr.’s “I Pray on Christmas”) and Mavis Staples (the traditional and highly propulsive “Born in Bethlehem”), while Tom Waits more than adequately holds his own on the title track. On the other hand, Me’Shell NdegéOcello, Les McCann and especially Chrissie Hynde are featured on tracks where you feel The Blind Boys are merely singing backup for someone whose style is totally foreign to them. Similarly (and disappointingly), Robert Randolph’s guest turn on pedal steel guitar is wasted, but he’s an exception among non-singing musicians, as organist John Medeski, guitarist Duke Robillard (or, on one track, Richard Thompson), bassist Danny Thompson and drummer Michael Jerome are uniformly excellent, always serving the music and the stars of the disc, never showing off or trying to steal the spotlight. In the end, you wonder: were all these guests necessary? After all, given the success of their last two Real World CDs, don’t The Blind Boys of Alabama have enough star power of their own to attract the attention of record buyers? Still, with the album’s emphasis on traditional religious material, it’ll get (a few) more spins than all these chestnut-filled seasonal releases that seem to clutter the record stores’ shelves at this time each year. (

Genuine Houserockin' MusicTaking a different tack is Genuine Houserockin’ Christmas, an Alligator Records compilation of mostly new compositions around the Christmas theme. Though some tunes sound like recycled standards with new lyrics, and there’s a few too many journeyman performances --- let’s not name any names --- a few joyful moments can be had by all: the train imitation and formidable ensemble playing on Carey Bell’s “Christmas Train” (the rhythm section of Johnny B Gayden and Willie Hayes is just smoking); the borderline pornographic (and hilarious) “Christmas Time” from the zany Lil’ Ed & The Blues Imperials; the surprisingly jazzy “Stay a Little Longer, Santa” from Shemekia Copeland, which contrasts nicely with the rocking “Back Door Santa” from The Holmes Brothers; the welcome Louisiana rhythms of C.J. Chenier’s “Zydeco Christmas” (with the line: “Deck the halls with Cayenne pepper”) and Marcia Ball’s “Christmas Fais Do Do”); and the sarcastic wit of Little Charlie & The Nightcats’ “Christmas Time Again (Spend, Spend, Spend)”. And remember: ho ho ho. (

--- Benoît Brière

Ripping through a batch of high-powered blues and rock is Christopher Clerc AKA Bubba and the Big Bad Blues on their self titled CD, Bubba and the Big Bad Blues on indie label Fullerton Gold. Hailing from the L.A. basin these smog-infected boys know how to deliver the blues. Bubba handles the lead singing and guitar playing with cool finesse bopping all over the blues map, from slow hand rhythms on tunes like "Black Clouds" to New Orleans style shuffles on "Gimme Some Beads," and everywhere in between. Backed by some wonderful musicianship, we have Shawn Nourse on the skins, Mike Berry holding the backbeat and Rick Solem on keyboard/piano duties. Most of the tunes are written by Bubba, but he and the band do some great covers as is evident in Big Bill Broonzy¹s "It Hurts Me Too" and Elmore James' "Stranger Blues," featuring some interesting vocal work from Bubba. Bubba and the boys play all over Southern California and have done so for the last 20 years. So the next time you¹re in the area check out this band. From the sound of things, their live show should be worth it. For all the info you need, stop by the band¹s site at

Obviously drenched in the blues version of the syrupy concoction that usually surrounds waffles, Mama¹s Boys most recent CD, Chicken and Waffles, provides a healthy dose of the good stuff. Created in the oldest blues club in the Los Angeles area, Babe and Ricky¹s, in the early '90s, these guys have put together an energetic brand of blues perfect for any fan. Lead singer/harpist Johnny Mastro commands the mic with his tight fitting vocals and harp playing. Some truly inspiring players, such as lead guitarist Dave Melton, back Mastro. Just listen to his slide playing on the Elmore James tune "Coming Home," and any doubt of his mastery on guitar is quickly erased. He also shows his knack for singing on the cut "Something to Remember You By." Rounding out the band is Jeff "Slick Daddy" Henry on bass, Jim Goodall on drums and Kirk Fletcher on rhythm guitar. It seems that Mastro has a worthy songwriting partner in Chris Mastrogiovanni, who wrote or co-wrote most of the originals (nine out of 12 songs ain¹t bad) on the disc. A very interesting blend of boogie/rock blues interlaced with some slow cookers sure to entice your blues fever. Check out all the latest happenings of the band at

--- Bruce Coen

The Tarbox Ramblers' A Fix Back East (Rounder Records) is a balanced blues/jug band combo, at the same time specialized enough to be an acquired taste and good enough to grab the attention of strangers who have never been exposed to American roots music at all. They've identified idols, grabbed what they idolize about them and built a sound around those facets and factors. From Charley Patton, they took the constant implication of apocalypse, expressed throughout this record by a huge bass drum that sounds something like a metal gasoline can miked from the inside and beaten with a rubber hose, and by vocals so raw that they have to come from screaming over murderously frisky bar crowds for many years. From gospel and prison field recordings, they set heavy, complex rhythms and song topics sublimated to those rhythms. From early rock and roll, they take distortion and echo. Unlikely combination though this is to produce a joyous, hypnotic recording one will want to hear again and again, it works, both because the Tarbox Ramblers are so aware of what they're doing and because they're so good at it. At no point is a song sacrificed for a solo here, or for novelty, tribute to any specific artist or exploration of any narrow genre. The Tarbox Ramblers are the Tarbox Ramblers, unmistakably and constantly. They are 110% folk, 110% blues, 110% gospel, 110% rock and 110% country, and will please listeners accordingly.

It has been several years since we heard from Luther "Badman" Keith, a Detroit blues guitarist/vocalist who early mastered the greatest necessity of a real bluesman --- being larger than life. Every blues legend attends every blues performance and recording session, and every blues artist is in constant competition with those legends. Luther "Badman" Keith thoroughly understands this; he accepts and meets the challenge, rising above not only the mundane problems on which blues lyrics are based, but also the hot, hot talents he works with and his own gold-flecked dajiki, custom-made guitar, out-of-control persona. One must admire and enjoy the fascinating, impassioned result. The 13 song titles on Thunder In My Blues (BMB Records) and the synopses of their origins provided in liner notes seem incredibly innocent compared to the actual recordings ... like a small-type proviso reading, "adult supervision suggested" on a box of dynamite. Okay, "Gonna Give Up Drinkin'" really is about that idea of quitting that accompanies my hangovers and yours, but "Badman" gives us the idea that his hangover is worse, and the high that preceded it better than anything we mere mortals could possibly experience. Similarly, "Sleeping With The Devil" may be something we've all done, awaking with a highly unpleasant person, but, hearing him, one must believe that "Badman" actually woke up with a pitchfork-toting bitch with horns and a tail. It's a little big band format, with horns and keyboards joining Keith's guitar-driven power trio for the session. As such, it's an outfit capable of rocking any space with serious, urban blues. While only Marvel Comics could come up with a backing band that is truly Keith's equal in performance, this group comes pretty close. I don't think this man is capable of putting out a record that isn't great.

--- Arthur Shuey

Pianist and vocalist Al Copley was a founding member of Roomful of Blues way back in the last century. Jump On It (One Mind Records) marks his first release in a decade, and though it may not jump quite as hard as the title might lead one to believe, it has its moments. Being a fan, I admit to a bit of confusion over the choices of bar band staples like the Kingsmen’s “Louie Louie” (what?!), Jerry Lee Lewis’ “Great Balls of Fire,” and “How Sweet It Is” (a hit for both Marvin Gaye and Junior Walker) in the program. Copley offers some insight into his thought process in the liners, tying the diverse program to a “young love lost, fun overdone, new love found” theme. Ok. That said, it ain’t entirely a bad disc. The opening original, “The Last Thing I Needed,” is a hot tune out of the Roomful bag, with tight horns and rhythm over which he sings and boogies. The cover of “Hoy Hoy Hoy” is equally impressive, with a great Jimmy ‘B’ Biggins tenor solo, and his version of Bullmoose Jackson’s classic “The Big Ten Inch Record” showcases the rockin' horns to fine effect. “Someday,” a Smiley Lewis tune out of the 1950s, has an almost Sinatra feel to it, but the closing take on Lewis’ “I Ain’t Gonna Do It,” the best tune in the bunch, shakes the speakers with authority and will cause the most un-rhythmic of toes to tap. One of my favorite tunes, Percy Mayfield’s “Please Send Me Someone to Love,” is also well done. It’s good to hear Al Copley back on the block. Minus the bar covers, a pretty good disc.
Note: A second review of Copley's CD follows below.

That Funky Thang (Big G Productions) is a self-produced effort out of Oklahoma City, and is impressive on a couple of levels. At 19, Garrett ‘Big G’ Jacobson is an assured player with an imposing arsenal of chops. Most of the youngsters who get any kind of notice beyond the city limits are steeped in the blues tradition or, more often, the blues-rock book. Jacobson is neither, and though he may not get much recognition outside the Southwest circuit, he’s unquestionably a man worth a second listen. Jacobson may be more inspired by the Average White Band than Freddie King, but he’s well versed in the blues. He just, apparently, can’t get enough of that funky thang. Chugga chugga ching chords abound here. The opening title piece has big, fat funky horn charts over which he vamps. “I Saw Her Leavin’ Me” (“I wanted to see her/but she didn’t want to see me”) sets up a good story line, sports Greg Zink’s fine organ work, and well-executed and tight, tight guitar lines from Big G. The cover of “Shakey Ground,” one of only three covers, is extremely impressive for the guitar and horn work. He pays tribute to Little Milton (“Walkin’ The Back Streets and Cryin’”) and B.B. King (“Business With My Baby Tonight”), proving conclusively that his blues chops are tight. He’s got a well-scrubbed Opie look, but he’s a first-rate guitarist with good vocals and a notebook worth of largely intelligent lyrics. Altogether, an impressive showing for the young Okie. Put this kid on the road and he’s going to win converts coast to coast. Contact him at

Box of BluesBox of the Blues, a four-CD box set from Rounder, is one of the more impressive collections to be released in this Year of the Blues. An overview of highlights in the Cambridge-based label’s 33 years in the business, it could serve as well as a glimpse of blues progression over the past half century or so. Like other labels that record this music, Rounder re-issues classics in addition to a robust crop of current artists. The results are solidly impressive. Johnny Shines was one of the first important bluesmen to record for Rounder, the first recordings by George Thorogood & the Destroyers helped launch the label to international recognition, and Gatemouth Brown won them their first Grammy award in 1982. In the intervening years, Johnny Copeland, Marcia Ball, Roomful of Blues, Johnny Adams, Eddy Clearwater, Anson Funderburgh, Professor Longhair, Lowell Fulson, Champion Jack Dupree, Ruth Brown, Corey Harris, and Chris Duarte, among many, many others, have found a home here. The 60 songs collected for this boxed set are testament to the importance of this record label. They’re also a lot of fun to listen to. Disc #1, entitled “61 Highway,” concentrates on the first generation players. Here are Mississippi Fred McDowell, Johnny Shines and Robert ‘Jr’ Lockwood, Etta Baker, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, Blind Willie McTell, Cephas and Wiggins and Mississippi John Hurt, among others less well known. Unexpected treats here include the version of “See See Rider,” from Babe Stovall and Herb Quin, and Buster Brown’s “I’m Gonna Make You Happy.” Needless to say everything else is classic. The second disc, “One More Mile,” is about the full-ensemble urban blues. Gatemouth Brown, Carey Bell, Johnny Copeland, Jimmy Rogers, and JB Hutto & the Hawks are spotlighted here. Champion Jack Dupree’s “Give Me Flowers While I’m Living” shares space with Lonesome Sundown’s “This is The Blues.” And the exquisite “Going’ Out West (Part I and Part II),” from the classic Larry Davis album “Sooner or Later,” makes an appearance, too. It just don’t get better than this. The third disc in the collection, entitled “Change in My Pocket,” is loaded with “younger” interpreters of the blues. That’s a relative term, of course. There’s nothing particularly young about Anson Funderburgh and Sam Myers, and I’m sure Geoff Muldaur likes getting called on the younger side. There’s no such ambiguity about the music, though. Marcia Ball sings “Blue House.” I would have dug something even older, like “Eugene,” but given that every tune on every Marcia Ball disc is a winner, who’s complaining. Candye Kane is certainly one of those relative youngsters charged with keeping enthusiasm for this music high and she does a swell job on the title cut of her “The Toughest Girl Alive.” Michelle Willson, who mines that same swinging territory, is here, as well. Corey Harris is destined to be regarded as one of the most important blues artists to surface in the 1990s, and his version of the classic “Keep Your Lamp Trimmed and Burning” offers a taste of why I believe that. Rory Block may be the most important blues artist on the Rounder label, ever. Though she just ended a 30 relationship with the label, they’ll forever be intertwined. George Thorogood offers a solo acoustic take on “John Hardy” rather than one of the full bore electric numbers that made him famous. The choice was brilliant, as it showcases their reason for signing the then unknown Thorogood in the first place – googobs of talent. The final disc of the set, “A Good Day for the Blues,” is a soul-blues extravaganza. It opens with Ruth Brown and features Wilson Picket’s “Outskirts of Town,” Otis Clay’s sensual “I Can Take You to Heaven Tonight,” and the Holmes gospel-ized “Promised Land.” Mixed among these treasures are equally impressive numbers from Johnny Adams, one of the finest blues singers to ever grace a stage, the late great Charles Brown, Ann Peebles, Bobby King & Terry Adams, Ted Hawkins and others. There is an almost overwhelming quantity of great music collected in this box set. Rounder has never been a music making machine that cranks out product. This has always been a company dedicated to the music. The bottom line has always been their consistent quality and this is undeniably a first rate collection.

Guitarist/vocalist Dr. David Evans knows down-home country blues better than most, having learned many of the tunes he performs here from the originators. Like Alan and John Lomax, musicologist Evans was in the field documenting blues legends, primarily in the Memphis area, 40 years ago. His resume also includes dates in the 1960s when he and his first musical partner, Alan Wilson, later co-founder of Canned Heat, first performed. It also includes the distinction of being Hammie Nixon’s last musical partner in the 1980s and producing Jessie Mae Hemphill’s wonderful She Wolf record in 1981. The good doctor has been around the proverbial block a few times, and is conspicuously infused with a love of this music that drips from each note. This country blues and jug band collection, Match Box Blues (Inside Memphis), is loaded with gems. Here you’ll hear an authentic cover of “Shake ‘Em on Down” and an interesting “Candy Man” with little connection to the Gary Davis/John Hurt version. He pays tribute to Blind Lemon Jefferson, Furry Lewis, Yank Rachell, Leroy Carr and Scrapper Blackwell, Jack Owens and Ma Rainey in a style that adheres closely to the original arrangements, often as taught to him by the authors or someone else who learned first hand. The guitarist/singer/kazoo player is joined by Jobie Kilzer (harmonica), Dick Raichelson (piano), Amy Adcock (upright bass and tambourine) and Jack Adcock (washboard, percussion and jug). gets more info. This is the juju.

Guitarist/vocalist Bobby Messano has been playing music professionally for a good 30 years, though Holdin' Ground (Fishhead Records) is only his third recording under his own name. His career includes recordings with Clarence Clemons (ex-Springsteen), Peter Criss (ex-Kiss), Joe Lynn Turner (ex-Ritchie Blackmore’s Rainbow). He’s also played with the likes of Lou Gramm (ex-Foreigner) and Steve Winwood. Hardly the stuff that a blues resume is made of, but an indication of the chops he brings to the project. He has a good sense of timing, impassioned vocals and tastefully rendered guitar work to recommend him. There’s a bit of funkified Albert Colllins in his “Get Up and Dance (With the Blues),” with backing vocals from the always impressive Francine Reed, and there’s a dab of Gary Moore influence in “In The Depths of Love.” “Guess Life Always Works That Way,” again with Francine Reed, has gospel overtones, and benefits from Elizabeth Barnes’ grand piano. “The Way Things Used To Be” is a boogie that shows pianist Tom Gross in a fine light. Messano is a journeyman guitarist and vocalist who won’t fit most definitions of the blues, but may appeal to blues rock fans.

The ambitious and impressive six-disc Heroes of the Blues series comes from one of the newest players on the blues block. Shout! Factory is the latest venture for Richard Foos, the man who founded Rhino Records 25 years ago. The same eye for detail and excitement for the music is infused in the label’s output – from their excellent blues DVDs titles (Deep Blues, Blues Story and The Life & Music of Robert Johnson: Can’t You Hear The Wind Howl?) to these superb samplers. Graced with R. Crumb covers and concise liner notes, each takes a look at what made the subjects matter in blues history. Recording information is extremely limited, which is a major oversight, not to mention a major bummer for us info-maniacs. Who plays on the sessions and when the recordings were done remains a mystery on some of these vital slices of Delta blues. On the plus side, the sound is cleaned up and is absolutely superb on all of those selections presented here. The music is, of course, as extraordinary as blues has ever sounded. These are indeed the roots. The choice of the six subjects seems somewhat random and, sadly, there are no plans to expand the library.

The Very Best of Rev. Gary Davis
Gary Davis is often spoken of in the same sort of hushed tones reserved for Robert Johnson. The collection at hand examines both the better known and the lesser so of his extensive songbook. This is as good a collection as I've heard on the master and better than the vast majority. “Candy Man,” “Samson and Delilah,” “Cocaine Blues” and “Death Don’t Have No Mercy,” all well-known classics in the good Reverend's songbook, are interspersed with gems like “Whistlin’ Blues,” a song I had never heard before that pre-dates Albert Collins for clever sound effects and a great storyline. “Out On the Ocean Sailing” features Davis on banjo and “Soon My Work Will All Be Done,” recorded in1969, has some of the most poignant lyrics he wrote. There are a couple of 1935 songs in the collection, but the majority are from his re-discovery in the 1960s. All are amazing.

The Very Best of Skip James
The Skip James collection offers just about zero recording information other than that these were previously released on Document, Adelphi and the now Shout! Factory-owned Biograph. James recorded in the 1930s and fell off the music radar, reportedly to preach the gospel, until the 1960s. An extraordinarily talented man, James had a unique falsetto vocal style and was a first class pianist and guitarist. His “Vicksburg Blues,” “Hard Time Killing Floor Blues” and “I’m So Glad” (covered by Cream), “Cypress Grove Blues” and “Crow Jane” are classic Delta blues pieces that sound wonderful still.

The Very Best of Furry Lewis
Walter 'Furry’ Lewis was a blues man with a big reputation in the 1920s. He was re-discovered in the 1950s. In the intervening years he was employed as a Memphis street sweeper. He left a legacy of superb recorded music, much of which is revisited here. “Furry’s Blues” (“I believe I’ll buy me a graveyard of my own. I’m gonna kill everybody that have done me wrong”), “Judge Harsh Blues” and its remake as “Judge Boushe” (“arrest me for forgery and I can’t even sign my name”), and “Take Your Time” are stunning pieces of music. Lewis sometimes played simple guitar to accompany his vocals, but he more often served up more complex picking that reminded of John Hurt.

The Very Best of Son House
Eddie ‘Son’ House was a blues man of magnificent proportion. He sang with a floor- rumbling power and, though he was capable of intricate guitar work, nearly always strummed with string-breaking strength. These original recordings from the 1930s and 1940, and three from 1965, are testimony to his commanding presence. A few of the recordings here are scratchy, taken from rare surviving 78s. Among the gems here is a 1930 unissued test recording of “Walking Blues,” credited here as a House composition. There is also an original, stark solo version of “Walking Blues (Death Letter Blues)” from 1942 and “Country Farm Blues” from the same year to recommend this wonderful recording.

The Very Best of Mississippi Fred McDowell
Fred McDowell was one of the most revered of the Delta bluesmen. With a glowing reputation preceding him, he wasn’t discovered until the late 1950s, though he had been previouslyplaying the region for more than a decade. “Write Me A Few of Your Lines” was frequently covered by his young friend Bonnie Raitt at the beginning of her career, and the Rolling Stones cover of “You Gotta Move” put his name on the map in neon letters. His version of “Shake ‘Em On Down,” though not written by him, is largely credited as being the definitive version. “61 Highway,” “Keep Your Lamp Trimmed and Burning,” and “Kokomo Blues” are classics.

The Very Best of Ma Rainey
These 16 songs from Gertrude ‘Ma’ Rainey's run in the classic 1920s era of women blues singers is the equal of any from her contemporary Bessie Smith. Dubbed the ‘Mother of the Blues,’ she had already been singing for 20 years before making her recording debut in 1923 at age 37. Her most famous song, 1924’s “See See Rider,” is here, as is the 1928 classic “Hear Me Talkin’ to Ya” (“I don’t bite my tongue/If you want to be my man, you got to bring it with you when you come”). Her 1923 recording of “Bo-Weavil Blues,” included here, was her introduction to most blues audiences, and “Oh Papa,” “Blues Oh Blues” and “Black Eyed Blues” are prime examples of classic 1920s blues. Unfortunately, though recording dates are listed, recording personnel are not, and there are a slew of trumpet, tuba, kazoo and other players here that helped make these recordings as exciting as they are.

--- Mark Gallo

It’s been ten years since Roomful of Blues co-founder Al Copley released an album in the U.S.A. That album, entitled Good Understanding, was a collaboration with The Fabulous Thunderbirds. Since then, Copley has released four albums in Europe which have been available in the states only as imports. I am happy to say that his latest exercise in bluesy, boogie woogie piano joy, Jump On It (One Mind Records), is available to even us in the states. Jump On It is a relatively short record by today's standards, with a running time of only 31 minutes; most of the tunes, of which there are ten, average three minutes or less. The only original of the ten is the album’s opening number, ”The Last Thing I Needed,” a swinging brass-filled and somewhat personal reflection of that sometimes elusive emotion called love. The overall theme of this fun filled, energetic record follows suit, with the rest of the nine numbers being covers of some very recognizable tunes. The high charged pace of the opener continues on Roy Milton’s “Hoy Hoy Hoy,” with Al’s fingers flying at about 1,000 mph, and the very able bodied band of Curt Ramm on trumpet, Jimmy ‘B’ Biggins on tenor sax, Arno Hecht on baritone sax, Bob Parr on bass and Floyd Murphy Jr. on drums cooking right along with him. The often covered and sometimes suggestive ”The Big Ten Inch Record” follows, with Al’s sunny vocals evoking the mischievous fun behind this number. “Louie Louie” has been played to death over the years, as has Jerry Lee Lewis’ “Great Balls Of Fire,” but Copley breathes a huge breath of fresh air into these versions through his straight forward, off the cuff delivery and presentation. A pair of Percy Mayfield numbers slow things down a bit, and gives the listener a chance to catch his or her breath with the mid-tempo ease of “Stanger In My Hometown” and the timeless classic “Please Send Me Someone To Love.” The great work of Smiley Lewis gets a nod with an almost Sinatra-ish representation of “Someday” that segues into a lovely rendition of a tune made famous by Marvin Gaye, ”How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You).” Another Smiley Lewis number, “I Ain’t Gonna Do It,” wraps things up on a high energy note, with Al and band kicking out the jams. Produced and arranged by Copley, this record is beautifully paced and fastidiously recorded, often giving you the impression that you are listening to a much larger band rather than a sextet. Ten years was way too long to wait for a domestic release from this immensely accomplished pianist and singer. Hopefully, the release of Jump On It will start a trend and we won’t have to scour the import bins for the rest of his music. If you just might happen to be looking for those albums, they can be had at Jump On It needed to be longer, in my opinion, but it is one hell of a good record that should find a home in your collection soon. Merci beaucoup, Mssr. Copley.

When 2003 was declared the Year of the Blues, I expected there would be a few surprises and a few chestnuts being dug out of the archives from various record companies, magazines and so forth. What I didn’t expect was the impeccable treasure chest that I would find in The American Folk Blues Festival 1962-1966 Vols. I & II, now available on VHS & DVD. The American Folk Blues Festival was the brainchild of Horst Lippmann and Fritz Rau, two gentleman that promoted jazz shows in Europe and were also responsible for bringing the now legendary Jazz At The Philharmonic series to Europe. Together, acting upon a suggestion from noted German jazz journalist Joachim Berendt, they came up with the idea of bringing the cream of the American blues crop at the time to Europe for an appearance on Jazz Gehort und Gesehen (Jazz Seen and Heard), a bi-monthly TV show produced by Sudwestfunk, a German station located in Baden-Baden, and a coinciding tour. Their liaison in the states was Willie Dixon, who was greatly responsible for the sensational talent that appeared on these tours, and also coordinated many different aspects of the tours such as passports, birth certificates and so forth for the artists. Dixon was brilliant in his choice of not only the headline names but in his choice of musicians he assembled as the core backing band of which he was a member quite a few times. Coincidentally, Lippmann was also the director of that same TV show, which is how the wonderful and rare footage that has not been seen in close to 40 years. Both of these spectacular volumes are not in chronological order as far as the year the footage was shot, which is actually fine due to some slick editing. For purposes of continuity, I am going to take each volume individually and disregard any yearly chronological order.

Volume I wrecks your mind right from the get go with three segments from 1962, opening with T-Bone Walker picking out a version of “Call Me When You Need Me,” accompanied by the equally immortal Shakey Jake on vocals. The scene segues into Walker introducing Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee, who raise the roof with the red hot “Hootin’ Blues” before turning things over to Memphis Slim for a moving treatment of “The Blues Is Everywhere.” Roosevelt Sykes introduces Otis Rush, who howls and picks his way through a gritty presentation of “I Can’t Quit You Baby.” Rush was relatively unknown outside of Chicago at the time and tended to steal the show every night on the ‘66 tour with this piece. Perhaps one of the most overlooked guitarists in blues history is Lonnie Johnson; this clip of him performing “Another Night To Cry,” from 1963, is utterly priceless. One of the grand mistresses of the blues, Miss Sippie Wallace, was on hand for the 1966 tour and belts out a scrumptious version of “Women Be Wise,” with piano accompaniment from Little Brother Montgomery. You are probably salivating by now, but believe it or not it only gets better from here... and this is only Vol. I, folks. John Lee Hooker turns in a 1965 solo rendition of “Hobo Blues” that is a sight to behold, followed by a blazing performance of “Five Long Years,” done the same year by Eddie Boyd.  Look closely over Boyd’s shoulder and you will see a young Buddy Guy tearing things loose on guitar. If that isn’t enough for you, Walter “Shakey” Horton is next blowing his lungs out on “Shakeys Blues.” The camera is focused only on Horton, but the off camera band playing behind him is Eddie Boyd on piano, Buddy Guy on guitar, blues drummer elite Fred Below and ‘Lonesome’ Jimmy Lee thumping the bass. Some lineup, huh? From 1966, Junior Wells is next playing his now classic “Hoodoo Man Blues,” backed by Otis Rush on guitar, Jack Meyers on bass and once again Fred Below on drums. Big Joe Williams made the trip in 1963 and wowed the crowds with “Mean Stepfather,” as did Mississippi Fred McDowell with his brilliant 1965 version of “Going Down To The River.”  The absolute best is saved for last on Volume I, with four numbers from 1963 that all run concurrently as they closed the show that year and will have your jaw flapping in the breeze like a windsock. Memphis Slim begins by introducing another piano player, Otis Spann, whom he calls “a young man who we call the future of the blues as he has only been playing the blues for about 25 years.” He is accompanying Sonny Boy Williamson (Rice Miller) on a gut wrenching version of his signature piece “Nine Below Zero.” The fun continues as Otis himself is spotlighted for a barn burning version of his own “Spann’s Blues,” and, yes, you can see his hands! The legendary Muddy Waters is next with “Got My Mojo Working,” backed by Sonny Boy on harp, Willie Dixon on bass, Spann on piano, Matt ‘Guitar’ Murphy on guitar and Bill Stepney on drums. I don’t think there has ever been a greater assemblage of blues talent on one stage as on the finale to the ‘63 show “Bye Bye Blues.” Besides the players just mentioned, they are joined by Victoria Spivey, Lonnie Johnson and Big Joe Williams, who each take a turn at the mic for a verse, along with Memphis Slim trading places with Spann on piano. To see that much blues history on one stage playing together can only be described as... AWESOME. I’m going to keep under wraps the bonus track on Vol. I, as some things should best be left as a surprise, but will tease you with the name Earl.

Vol. II starts off just as priceless as Vol. I with a 1964 clip of Sonny Boy Williamson performing a solo entitled “Bye Bye Bird,” before joining Hubert Sumlin, Willie Dixon, Sunnyland Slim and Clifton James for a scorching cover of “My Younger Days.” The same band next backs Sunnyland Slim for “Come Home Baby,” with Williamson joining in on harp and featuring two amazing solos from ‘Little’ Hubert Sumlin. Willie Dixon fronts two numbers, with each done in a different year. “Nervous” is from 1962 and features the genius of T-Bone Walker on guitar and the masterful craftsmanship of Memphis Slim on piano for a slow smoky jam. 1963’s “Sittin’ And Cryin’ The Blues” also has Memphis Slim on piano, but this time the guitar player is Matt Murphy who sparkles like a gemstone. The legendary Lightnin’ Hopkins is pleasure personified to watch as he picks his way through a smoldering take of “Mojo Hand,” from 1964, as is Victoria Spivey singing her soul out on “Black Snake Blues,” backed by Lonnie Johnson and Sonny Boy Williamson, from 1963. T-Bone Walker’s performance of “Don’t Throw Your Love On Me So Strong,” from 1962, may have you forgetting to take a breath as you watch this incredible guitarist work his own special brand of magic. Roosevelt Sykes’ “Tall Heavy Mama,” from 1966, may also have the same effect on you in this all too brief glimpse of one of the blues’ grand piano masters. Matt Murphy gets the spotlight for his own “Murphy’s Boogie,” a high energy number from the 1963 show that shows why he was one of the most requested session guitarists in Chicago at the time. Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee make another appearance on Vol. II with the toe tapping “Stranger Blues,” from 1962, that is a portrait of country blues at its most finest. Mae Mercer introduces the artist that will entertain you for the three numbers that precede the finale. She introduces him as ‘The Taildragger,’ but most people know him by the name of Howlin Wolf. Howl he does for shattering versions of “Shake For Me” and “I’ll Be Back Someday,” and completely rips down the house with “Love Me Darlin.” This 1964 footage of The Wolf is worth double the list price of these discs alone, as it captures the true unadulterated spirit of this legend. You might want to take hold of your head which more than likely will be spinning after Wolf’s numbers, because the finale “Down Home Shakedown,” from 1965, might just cause it to explode. It should have been titled “Down Home Harp Blowdown,” because that is what it is. In order of solos, Big Mama Thornton, Walter “Shakey” Horton, J.B. Lenoir, Doctor Ross and John Lee Hooker (yes, you read it right) take harps in hand for a spectacle that has to be seen to be believed as they are backed by Buddy Guy, Lonesome Jimmy Lee and Fred Below. If you thought the finale of Vol. I was good, wait’ll you see this! Like Vol. I, there are not one but two bonus tracks that I’m going to leave as a surprise, but will say that they are both Magic.

I got so lost in telling you about the artists and performances that the technical aspect (which is what makes these so timeless) got a bit overlooked. First off, all of this incredible footage was done on what was then state of the art, two-inch videotape in black & white, and is in pristine condition as if it were recorded yesterday. This, in itself, is amazing as these have been in storage for 40 years. The quality will astound you, trust me. The camera angles and what the cameras focus on were light years ahead of anything that was being done here in the states. Anyone who has watched archived television footage of, let’s say, rock bands shot during the '60s knows what I mean. This stuff is not a bunch of close-ups of the artists’ faces while they are playing their fingers to the bone. While there are a few of those, the main focus was still capturing the music they were playing, which is not surprising because the fluid and imaginative camera work was by a gentleman named Michael Ballhaus, who would in later years serve as the cinematographer for Martin Scorsese (isn’t he a big blues fan?) on such films as Goodfellas, The Last Temptation of Christ and, most recently, Gangs of New York. The audio is just as good as the visuals. None of this was lip-synced and was captured live as it happened and given a very high degree of audio engineering at the time of its recording. It’s been digitally re-mastered to today’s standards, but just one listen will tell you that the beginning product was gorgeous to start with. Included with both discs is an 20-page booklet, with a few photos taken on the tours and commentary by Bill Wyman of The Rolling Stones and Ray Manzarek of The Doors, along with an in-depth history of the festivals written by Rob Bowman. There is also a track by track credit of every musician who played on them. The American Folk Blues Festival continued through 1970, taking a break in 1971. Lippman and Rau promoted two festivals in ‘72 before putting it on hiatus until 1980, when it was resurrected for a few more years before being permanently retired in 1985. The two promoters were visionaries when you consider that, at the time they started these festivals, some of the artists performing on them could barely get a record deal in their own country. Blues festivals in the United States didn’t really even exist until about 1969. It took a pair a men from another country to make us realize, through the future rock musicians that went to see these festivals, how unappreciative and disrespectful we in U.S. had been to our own unique and original music culture. Sadly, Horst Lippman passed away in 1997, but left behind a legacy behind that, if I could, would personally like to thank him for. His partner Fritz Rau is still with us, and still active on the German music scene today. These two very precious volumes are so affordably priced that it would be a disgrace if every blues fan in the world didn’t own them. When you watch the credits at the end of both of these videos, be sure to watch them all the way through to the end because there is a very touching message to Lippmann and Rau which pretty much still rings true these many years later. It says: “A very special thanks to promoters Horst Lippman and Fritz Rau for bringing these artists to Europe and helping to change the course of popular music.”

--- Steve Hinrichsen


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