Living Blues #291 Top 10 Reviews


Shut Up & Play!

Alligator – ALCD 5020

The overall sound on Shut Up & Play! is what we’ve come to expect from Cannon: full-bodied studio accompaniment; supple, sure-fingered leads characterized by both melodic and harmonic inventiveness (especially when he tones things down, such as on the medium-funk ballad Him where his fretwork attains a riveting meld of tenderness and aggression); vocals that convey a range of emotional states from wounded vulnerability through preening confidence to explosive anger (all the more impressive if we recall that it took Cannon awhile to summon that kind of vocal power—his early outings sounded somewhat tentative). Although he isn’t self-consciously “rootsy” most of the time, the blues roots are never far from the surface. Unlovable finds him unfurling slide patterns that channel the spirits of Elmore James and J.B. Hutto, as his band chugs and shuffles with vintage juke joint élan (pianist Cole DeGenova weighs in with an especially pungent evocation of such past masters as Little Johnny Jones and Ike Turner). Elsewhere, as in Guilty, the influence of Albert King—obviously a role model for the southpaw Cannon—makes itself eloquently felt. 

Cannon’s most impressive growth through the years, though, has been as a lyricist. As evinced by the album title and cover illustration, as well as offerings such as Got Me by the Short Hairs, My Woman Loves Me Too Much, and I Hate Love, he’s in full command of a hard-edged blues irony; but he can also open his heart and soul with fearlessness. The aforementioned Guilty eloquently invokes sin and redemption without crossing into either self-righteousness or despair. The title track, a full-metal fusillade charged with arena rock power, finds the songwriter defiantly calling out the hypocrisy of critics who’d admonish him to tone down his opinions as an angry Black man, while still calling themselves blues lovers (“Black lives matter to you, too / ’Cause we the people that sho ’nuff got the blues”), as his searing leads convey the same anguished outrage reflected in his lyrics.

Possibly the most memorable outing here, though, is also the gentlest: Message to My Daughter, a courageously vulnerable open letter to a child who’s been buffeted by the emotional turmoil of seeing her parents’ relationship deteriorate (“When me and your mother split apart, we didn’t divorce you, too”). Juxtaposed against the warrior-like fury of the title track, it’s remindful of the late Gil Scott-Heron’s Your Daddy Loves You, which conveyed a similar message, and played a similar role, on Scott-Heron’s classic Winter in America in 1974. That’s putting Toronzo Cannon in some pretty daunting company, to be sure, but from the evidence on this album, he appears ready to step up and assume his rightful place in it. 

—David Whiteis


Human Decency

Forty Below Records – 040

After playing around Southern California as lead singer of the soul blues outfit Aunt Kizzy’s Boyz (and releasing two albums with the band in 2004 and 2007), Sugaray Rayford has built a national following as a solo artist since his 2010 debut, Blind Alley.

His eighth release as leader, Human Decency, finds Rayford still mining a rich vein of soul blues that fans of Aunt Kizzy’s Boyz would recognize—but with a broader palette, taking in everything from Texas blues to Louisiana swamp sounds to straight-up Memphis R&B.

As with his last two albums (also released by Forty Below Records), he teams up here with producer and songwriter Eric Corne. Where the pair’s first outing, Somebody Save Me (2019), was marked by introspective songs played at a relaxed tempo, Human Decency builds more upon the extroverted and up-tempo approach heard on In Too Deep (2022).

Like his 2022 outing, Human Decency displays Rayford’s consistency in preaching healing and rapprochement over division. Consider this verse from the title track: “When worlds collide / Everyone’s picking sides / Angels spread your wings / This time it’s an emergency / Songbirds prepare to sing / A little tale of human decency.”

Besides the title track, other highlights are the lead song, Failing Upwards, and Dirty Rat—both of which show that Rayford and Corne aren’t afraid to criticize certain negative forces in society, even as the overarching theme is one of coming together.

The two duets with roots rocker Sam Morrow—Stuck Between and Ain’t That a Man—show how comfortable Rayford is interacting with other singers. Ain’t That a Man finds the two men trading asides on a straight up southern soul approach, while Stuck Between is a nice throwback to West Coast funk à la vintage Tower of Power.

Rayford’s singing voice has tremendous range, from a high baritone through most of the tenor range. His delivery is generally conversational—not that he isn’t fully singing, but rather that he’s got that Sinatra-esque touch of telling a story through the lyrics.

Throughout, the keyboards of Drake “Munkihaid” Shining and Sasha Smith (the liner notes don’t indicate who plays on which tracks) provide a soulful backdrop to Rayford’s voice. The horn section both frames the vocals and provides a nice punctuational punch.

Guitarists Rick Holmstrom and Eamonn Ryand (again, the liner notes don’t indicate individual track credits) share most of the lead duties that Rayford doesn’t handle on vocals—as well as laying down fills and solos that only add to the overall musicianship of the album.

The arrangements tie it all together in near perfection—the rhythm section chugging out a solid blues beat, while the horns, guitars, and keys create a swirling tapestry behind Rayford. The mix is rich, giving the album as full and professional a sound as Rayford has yet had on one of his albums.

—Jim Trageser


Person of Interest

Little Village – LVF 1065

Pittsburgh-based soul blues vocalist and songwriter Billy Price is a veteran who first made his mark in the mid-1970s during a three-year tenure touring and recording with legendary guitar slinger Roy Buchanan. He went on to establish himself as a leader with Keystone Rhythm Band, and his bona fides as a soul blues artist include a 2016 Blues Music Award for best Soul Blues Album for This Time for Real, a collaboration with the late Otis Clay. With Person of Interest, Price delivers a set of highly polished tunes which should attract listeners beyond the blues world. A lot of that polish can be attributed to the work of drummer/producer Tony Braunagel, who has contributed to award-winning albums from artists such as Bonnie Raitt, Robert Cray, Taj Mahal, Buddy Guy, and Curtis Salgado. Throughout the album, the top-flight rhythm section (which in addition to Braunagel includes percussionist Lenny Castro; keyboardist Jim Pugh; guitarist Josh Sklair or Shane Theriot; and bassist Larry Fulcher, James “Hutch” Hutchinson, or Reggie McBride) is tight as a drum. Add topflight background vocalists Maxayn Lewis, Fred White, and Will Wheaton, saxophonists Ron Dziubla and Eric Spaulding, and trumpeter Mark Pender, and Price has himself quite the crew of professionals to help him bring to life this set of 13 original compositions that explore love’s ups and downs and often are shaded with a noirish intrigue.

Price’s vocals feature a sandpapery grit and bluesy feel that infuse the lyrics with a weight that could only come from countless nights on the bandstand. He looks back to his roots with Change Your Mind, which is dedicated to the memory of Buchanan and appropriately features Joe Bonamassa, one of today’s most widely hailed guitar slingers. Price evokes the classic R&B sound of Stax records with The Gift that boasts some great guitar fills from Theriot. Buoyed by swinging horn lines, Price invests Damage Control with a wounded passion. Throughout Person of Interest, the veteran singer shows that he’s at home fronting a stellar array of studio players and applying his talent to a range of approaches, from the jaunty, polyrhythmic funk of Person of Interest to the sultry Latinesque A Certain Somebody, from the blues rocker Can’t Get Enough to impassioned R&B ballad Mercy. 

—Robert H. Cataliotti


True Blues Brother: The Legacy of Matt “Guitar” Murphy

Nola Blue Records – NBR026 

Matt “Guitar” Murphy may have been best known for his role in the 1980 film The Blues Brothers, but devoted music fans know that his legacy runs much deeper. Even on his early recordings with Memphis Slim, Murphy had a distinctive guitar style marked by perfectly placed chords and delicate single-note runs. When Murphy passed away in 2018, he had been working with drummer and producer Bob Christina to record an album. Determined to complete the project after Murphy’s death, Christina reached out to fellow musicians for help. The overwhelming response from the blues community led to the 23-track collection True Blues Brother: The Legacy of Matt “Guitar” Murphy. 

Matt’s Boogie was recorded with Christina before Murphy’s passing. When he digs into his signature instrumental, his dexterity and lyricism are as strong as ever. Organist Bruce Bears acts as a perfect musical foil. When Memphis Slim performed I’m Lost Without You, Murphy was always given ample room to stretch out. Fran Christina handles the vocals for this collection’s stately reading, and Bill “Fox” Mills does a great job recreating Murphy’s guitar style. Christine Ohlman (the Beehive Queen) lends her passionate, high-octane vocals to Something’s Got a Hold on Me. Intertwining guitar parts from Cliff Goodwin and Ricky “King” Russell drive the arrangement. 

Artha Franklin’s Think was featured in a much-loved scene in The Blues Brothers. Here, the tune is taken at a more relaxed tempo that leaves plenty of room for individual musicians to shine. Toni Lynn Washington is outstanding on vocals, and a wonderful tenor solo from Gordon “Sax” Beadle adds spice. Way Down South, the title track from Murphy’s acclaimed 1990 solo album, is one of the collection’s high points. Kenny “Blues Boss” Wayne handles the vocals and plays piano, while Steve Cropper lends his inimitable guitar chops. Lee Oskar’s harmonica adds down-home grit. A cover of Muddy Waters’ Let Me Hang Around sports a stripped-down arrangement that will please traditionalists. Vocals from Joe Beard and Billy Boy Arnold’s harmonica bring the tune to life. 

Christina and company have given us a treasure chest—listeners are bound to discover something new with each listen. Only the greatest musicians earn the degree of love and respect that went into True Blues Brother: The Legacy of Matt “Guitar” Murphy. 

—Jon Kleinman


Getaway Blues

Yellow Dog Records – YDR 2716

Singer/pianist Eden Brent is on fire. If her name does not ring a bell yet, get ready for a blast. Brent is no newcomer, having received well-deserved recognition, including the coveted Mississippi Arts Commission’s Folk Arts Fellowship, inclusion in their Mississippi Artist Roster, and a 1994 Folk Arts Apprenticeship with Abie “Boogaloo” Ames. In 2011 she received the Music Composition (Contemporary) award from Mississippi Institute of Arts and Letters for her album Ain’t Got No Troubles. She has a dozen nominations in the Living Blues Awards, and she won the International Blues Challenge in 2006. She also won three key Blues Music Awards: 2010 Pinetop Perkins Piano Player of the Year, 2009 Acoustic Artist of the Year, and 2009 Acoustic Album of the Year. 

Getaway Blues delivers refined blues, heartfelt and passionate—a spicy album with just the right tone, sound, and feeling. By the time you get to the end of the album, it will leave you wanting more than the nine songs, all originals. The entire project is a cross-cultural amalgam. Eden Brent is from Greenville, Mississippi, and she carries on the best of southern blues in her soulful singing and swift, honky-tonkin’, boogie-woogie, New Orleans piano style. Her bassist, producer, and co-writer husband, Bob Dowell, brought out the best in everyone. The album was recorded during a trip to his hometown of London, England, at Fish Factory Studios. They brought along some superb local friends as session musicians with all the chops: the tasteful and eloquent guitarist Rob Updegraff and drummer Pat Levett, who knew just what to do and was always in the pocket. Unless somebody revealed those facts, most folks would think it was all a New Orleans or Memphis homebred production, with someone like the late Allen Toussaint as producer. The album has true soul and in spots is outright sensual, and not just because of the occasional double entendre. This record kicks in no small measure because Eden Brent sings sultry and beautifully, somewhat comparable to Janiva Magness. Things come from deep down inside, plus she plays polished piano. 

There is not a bad cut on the remarkably even and consistently good record. Noteworthy highlights could be Watch the World Go By, a compelling melody with a 16-bar bridge, written by Eden Brent. Anyone who has ever had a fight with the bottle will connect with pouring yet another whiskey and watching the world go by. You On My Mind, written by Bob Dowell, is a country-flavored slow blues with the emotive line: “Everything is easy with you on my mind.” Rob Updegraff shines on this one with subtle sensitivity. Mississippi River Got Me Crying is perhaps the greatest testimony to Eden Brent’s musical prowess as she pulls you into this slow blues, with a vibe like Irma Thomas or Ruth Brown.

If there is any justice, this album will be a big deal with the blues judges and award people. Most importantly, Getaway Blues uplifts you a bit in these complicated times.

Heavy rotation for this one!

—Frank Matheis


Lil Hoochie

No label – No #

Linsey Alexander, a.k.a. “The Hoochie Man,” has been a longtime fixture on the Chicago blues scene. He’s recorded a string of albums for the Delmark label and has perfected his brand of gritty, urban blues seasoned with sardonic lyrics. Nicholas Alexander, Linsey’s son, honed his guitar and vocal chops sitting in with his father’s band at clubs on Chicago’s North Side. On Lil Hoochie, the younger Alexander begins establishing a musical identity of his own.

From the get-go, it’s clear that Alexander knows how to assemble and lead a band. A spandex-tight rhythm section and sharply arranged horns drive each track. The up-tempo blues Dial Your Number is a great showcase for Alexander’s talent. While Alexander is a solid guitarist—his busy style and distorted tone recall Son Seals—his vocals are more likely to turn heads. His bright, clear tenor voice can bend notes as easily as a guitar string, and his sense of rhythm and dynamics is outstanding. The polished, contemporary blues Moving to the Country is another standout. Alexander’s voice is well-suited to this style, and the band is in top form. Mona Lisa Was a Man, which includes some quotes from Little Milton’s Grits Ain’t Groceries, is a staple of Linsey Alexander’s sets. Nicholas Alexander puts his own stamp on the tune with his inimitable vocals and a fiery guitar solo that edges into Jimi Hendrix territory. 

Lil Hoochie contains a strong dose of familiar blues warhorses and James Brown covers. Alexander’s impassioned vocals and Dan Souvigny’s keyboard work bring inspiration to Outskirts of Town and I Believe to My Soul. Seamless grooves from bassist David Forte and drummer Melvin Carlisle and deft rhythm guitar work from Souvigny breathe new life into Brown staples like Popcorn and Make It Funky. A straightforward reading of Soul Power takes an interesting detour when Alexander injects a guitar solo that channels Funkadelic’s Eddie Hazel. 

Lil Hoochie offers a clear glimpse of a musician who is still finding his own voice. With more original material and a smoother melding of funk and contemporary blues, Alexander has the potential to make his mark on today’s blues scene. 

—Jon Kleinman


Chicken Man

Bloos Records – BLO-22

Singer-songwriter and guitarist Corey Harris has cultivated a reputation for a unique, genre-inclusive take on the blues. This continues on his latest release, Chicken Man, out on Italian label Bloos Records. With the help of his sturdy band, Harris touches on a range of blues and roots music influences to provide a pleasing listening experience.

The title track opener kicks things off on a jaunty note. Aided by a sturdy rhythm and some killer sax work from Gordon “Saxman” Jones, Harris waxes poetic on his time as a street musician in New Orleans. It’s an ode to the city’s fondness for voodoo folklore and its African and Caribbean communities, and one of the liveliest songs on the record.

Chicken Man’s chief rival in the energy department comes from the polemic Jim Crow Joe. Harris is fiery as he runs through the reasons he’s frustrated with and disappointed by the current presidential administration. The track works best when dealing with the political realities of being Black in America and where President Biden has failed in terms of social justice, but Harris occasionally dips into some easy digs and (amusing) name-calling that blunts the impact of that message.

Elsewhere, Harris tips his cap to Malian icon Ali Farka Touré with Jahtigui. It’s an effective homage, wedding American blues with its African counterpart, and Harris changes up his vocal delivery to approximate Touré’s style and delivery. Oddly enough, the song pairs nicely with Red Man, a tribute to the indigenous American protesters at Standing Rock that has a vaguely reggae undercurrent to it.

Even with its use of other genres and approaches, Chicken Man is at its finest when it’s stripped back to Harris and an acoustic guitar. Since You Gone is a classic back porch blues song, with its indelible groove and heartfelt singing. Abetted by some fleet-fingered playing and a hot lick, the red-hot Money Hungry is another acoustic winner.

With Chicken Man, Harris presents blues fans with a little bit of everything the genre has to offer and does so with skill and poise.

—Jim Shahen Jr.


Positively 4th Street: A Tribute to Bob Dylan

Stony Plain – SPCD 1493

As a teenager in Greenwich Village in the 1960s, Rory Block lived in the heart of the decade’s folk revival. Besides crossing paths with the blues luminaries who inspired her own music career, she encountered a young Bob Dylan in her father Allan Block’s 4th Street sandal shop, a gathering place for local musicians. “When I walked in he was sitting there talking to my dad, and I remember thinking he had a very unique, artistic presence,” she recalled in her 2011 autobiography, When a Woman Gets the Blues. “After he left Dad told me something about the conversation. He said that Bob was a poet first and foremost who really didn’t care for the ‘business’ side of things. His priorities lay in being true to his art. Right away I resonated with the message.”

This message has served them both well in the years since, and with her new release, Block adds Dylan to the list of artists she has paid tribute to. Positively 4th Street proves that his songs are a natural fit for her gifts, and she interprets them with deep feeling and loving enthusiasm.

Block filters the nine songs on the album through her singular country blues style while retaining the spirit of Dylan’s original recorded versions. With the exception of Cindy Cashdollar’s baritone guitar on Not Dark Yet that underscores the ballad’s mournful air, Block plays all of the instruments. Her husky mezzo rumbles through Everything Is Broken and Like a Rolling Stone, then soars on A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall, and Mother of Muses. Her searing slide on the title track accentuates the lyrics’ burning scorn. Most arresting of all is Murder Most Foul, Dylan’s Kennedy assassination epic and the longest song in his recorded catalog. She sings it as Dylan does, with the understanding of someone who lived through the national tragedy, and her spare, sure fretwork gives it a Homeric feel. 

In a sense, Block has brought Dylan’s music back home to the Village, echoing his 1962 Columbia debut, Bob Dylan, and the blues songs he recorded for it. With Positively 4th Street, Block highlights the blues that lie at the heart of Dylan’s songs, and honors the artistic roots they both share. 

—Melanie Young


Silver Lining

Guitar One Records – No #

Massachusetts-based Gina Coleman has ridden a formidable road, both in the pains and pleasures of her life and as the voice of Misty Blues, the band she has fronted for the past quarter century. Coleman and her musicians mark this occasion with the appropriately titled Silver Lining, 11 cuts of blistering, emotionally charged blues that amply showcase the powers at this veteran outfit’s disposal.

Coleman wrote or co-wrote every track, her lyrics a clinic in facing the myriad challenges of life. The Upper Hand is a cool, coiled-spring ballad, Aaron Dean’s sensitive saxophone and Bill Patriquin’s mournful trumpet caressing stealthily hard-edged lyrics (“This once-bit mama won’t twice be fooled”). Keyboardist David Vittone gives the Latin-rhythmic Sofrito My Blues a fun, off-kilter tempo, while guitarist Seth Fleischmann and drummer Rob Tatten jab at that beat like a furious summer shower. Coleman’s voice is right at home riding Matt Cusson’s tangy, urbane electric piano on Chasing Gold, but sounds every bit as perfect mightily crooning over Ed Moran’s stark solo harmonica intro to the ensuing hurricane roar of Seduction By Blues.

That’s My Cross doesn’t shy away from the irritations and agonies of existence, but the deep groove of Patriquin’s bass and Coleman’s effortless assurance paint a portrait of stoic perseverance. The introspective How Will I finds Fleischmann’s guitar conjuring a soul-sick, reverb-drenched ambience, while Shake These Blues matches Coleman’s defiant vocals with a swinging, stinging Dean sax solo. The cutting edge of guitarist Early Times’ phrases scars up the funky backbeat of the fed-up-with-BS title track, while Jeff Stevens’ punchy trumpet bolsters the rolling-boil passion of Enough Lovin’ for Two.

Nothing’s in Vain, a chin-up ballad dedicated to celebrated British blues DJ Steve Beastie (who died of cancer late last year), leaves nothing on the table with lyrics of pure heartbreaking poetry, crowned by the climactic mantra “these blues are here to sustain you.” And the album-closing Blues Never Ends, which marshals the versatility of Coleman’s son Diego Mongue and his own band, is a powerful paean to the persistence of Black America and the music it has created to see itself through. As a ringing chorus intones the song’s title, Coleman preaches that history: “From a ship’s dock, to a shared crop / Had to work long, so they sang strong.” After 25 years, Misty Blues is still singing, and Silver Lining shows just how strong their song remains. 

—Matt R. Lohr


Live and Havin’ Fun

VizzTone – CDVTDR06

Deb Ryder’s sixth album is her most definitive to date, a live recording that captures her in full frenzy via a powerful performance at the Mint in Los Angeles. She shares the stage with others as well—courtesy of an A-list of marquee names, among them Tony Braunagel, Johnny Lee Schell, Albert Lee, and nearly a dozen more. Yet, to her credit, Ryder is never in danger of being overshadowed, owing not only to the fact that she executive produced the album, but also to her throaty yet effusive vocals effectively dominating the proceedings and turning each track into a veritable tour de force. 

That’s evident at the outset, from the brassy stomp of the opening track, Fun Never Hurt No One, and through to the songs that immediately follow. Ryder drives home the truth contained in the title track courtesy of a rousing rendition of what might easily be considered her signature song. Happily then, the energy and enthusiasm never waver from that point on, as evidenced by the organ-drenched sound of Enjoy the Ride, a song fueled by funk, finesse, and a riveting groove. The rousing Temporary Insanity is similarly sturdy and steadfast, well in keeping with the abject tenacity shared from beginning to end. 

Ryder’s decisive and determined delivery is manifest in each of these offerings, which is hardly surprising given the names of several of the selections—Bring the Walls Down, Get Ready, Hold On, Blues Is All I Got, and I’m Coming Home among them. On the other hand, the slow, sprawling ballad Might Just Get Lucky and the haunting echoes of Guilty As Sin show she’s well capable of shifting the tone and tempo.

While Ryder is credited with all the compositions, she culls from a familiar template, channeling such illustrious predecessors as Big Mama Thornton, Janis Joplin, Koko Taylor, and Tina Turner among them. The track titled Goodbye Baby seems like a reply to the familiar standard Come to Papa. Yet at the same time, her vocals are imbued with a power and passion that are clearly her own. Brassy and sassy, vibrant and incisive, she commands attention while bringing the songs to a full throttle. 

At a time when so many artists seem content to simply retrace the tried and true —generally to good effect—Ryder conveys a power and presence that elevates her into a singular standing. An outstanding introduction for those who are as yet unknowing, while providing absolute affirmation for those who may already be aware, Live and Havin’ Fun is all its name implies. 

—Lee Zimmerman