2015 Living Blues Awards

The 22nd Annual Living Blues Awards

Critics’ Poll:

Blues Artist of the Year (Male):
B.B. King

Blues Artist of the Year (Female):
Diunna Greenleaf

Most Outstanding Blues Singer:
Bobby Patterson

Most Outstanding Musician (Guitar):
Joe Louis Walker

Most Outstanding Musician (Harmonica):
James Cotton

Most Outstanding Musician (Keyboard):
Kenny “Blues Boss” Wayne

Most Outstanding Musician (Drums):
Kenny Smith

Most Outstanding Musician (Horns):
Grady Gaines

Most Outstanding Musician (Other):
Jerron Paxton – Banjo/Fiddle

Best Live Performer:
Bobby Rush

Comeback Artist of the Year:
Shuggie Otis

Artist Deserving More Attention:
Vaneese Thomas


Best Blues Albums of 2014:

Album of the Year:
Billy Boy Arnold, Blues Soul of Billy Boy Arnold (Stony Plain)

New Recordings/ Southern Soul:
Candi Staton, Life Happens (Beracah)

New Recordings/ Best Debut:
Selwyn Birchwood, Don’t Call No Ambulance (Alligator)

New Recordings/ Traditional & Acoustic:
Jerron Paxton, Recorded Music For Your Entertainment (Beaumont)

New Recordings/Contemporary Blues:
Gary Clark, Jr., Live (Warner Bros.)

Historical Pre-War:
Various Artists, Peabody Blues (Nehi)

Historical Post-War:
Various Artists, Classic African American Songsters (Smithsonian/Folkways)

Blues Book of the Year:
Pioneers of the Blues Revival
, by Steve Cushing (Univ. of IL Press)

DVD of the Year:
Various Artists, Legendary Country Blues Guitarists (Vestapol)


Readers’ Poll:

Blues Artist of the Year (Male):
Buddy Guy

Blues Artist of the Year (Female):
Shemekia Copeland

Best Blues Album (New Release):
Elvin Bishop, Can’t Even Do Wrong Right (Alligator)

Best Blues Album (Historical Recording):
Johnny Winter, True to the Blues: The Johnny Winter Story (Columbia/Legacy)

Best Blues DVD:
Various Artists, A Celebration of Blues and Soul: The 1989 Presidential Inaugural Concert (Shout! Factory)

Best Blues Book:
Blues All Day Long: The Jimmy Rogers Story
, by Wayne Everett Goins (Univ. of IL Press)

Most Outstanding Musician (Guitar):
Buddy Guy

Most Outstanding Musician (Harmonica):
Charlie Musselwhite

Most Outstanding Musician (Keyboard):
Marcia Ball

Best Live Performer:
Tab Benoit

Most Outstanding Blues Singer:
Buddy Guy

Living Blues #262 Top 10 Reviews


We Get By

ANTI- – 87670-2

When it comes to African American roots music—for that matter, any American roots music at all—the Staples name is royalty. Led by Roebuck “Pops” Staples, the Staple Singers made music that did more than just transcend genres; it erased the divisions between them. The group’s anthemic, soul-stirring songs had the same effect upon listeners, using music as a way to bring people together. 

After the family band ceased operations, daughter and vocalist Mavis Staples continued as a solo artist. Carrying on her family’s tradition of crossover appeal, she appeared at nominally rock-focused festivals like Bonnaroo and Glastonbury (multiple times at each, in fact), often collaborating with other artists. 

As she reaches her 80th year (of which all but the first ten found her performing), Staples is releasing We Get By, her 12th studio album. The new record continues Staples’ proven successful method of working with perhaps unexpected producers. Monsters of Folk guitarist M. Ward produced 2016’s Livin’ on a High Note, and 2017’s If All I Was Was Black was the third time Staples worked in the studio with Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy producing. 

For We Get By, Staples chose as her producer fellow Grammy Award–winner Ben Harper. Harper’s own musical eclecticism is perhaps more in line with the Staples family tradition than any previous studio collaborator; the result is an album that’s breathtaking in its musical scope. The heavy distortion of Change, for example, combines dirty blues and moving gospel. There’s a level of authenticity that bridges the gap between rock concert and Sunday morning revival. And the sinewy, irresistible groove of classic-era Staple Singers is brought to life on Anytime. 

Harper—who, like Tweedy before him, wrote all of the songs for Mavis’ album—has a keen understanding of what makes the singer special. And he’s helped mightily in his efforts by Mavis herself, who’s in as fine a voice as ever. Because there’s so much emotional content inherent in her delivery, the vocalist can hold back and still deliver. Still, now and then she lets loose at just the right time, proving that she can still hit those high notes (and deep notes) when she cares to.

We Get By isn’t all up-tempo stuff; the aptly named Heavy on My Mind is as moody as it is minimalist. But cuts like Sometime are more representative of the album’s overall character; the song all but compels the listener to clap along, even if said listener isn’t the praying kind. 

The choice of using the same set of musicians—a band, one might even say—for the whole album adds to its cohesive character. Few artists are still working 70 years into their career; fewer still are bringing forth the kind of quality found on We Get By. Long live Mavis Staples.

—Bill Kopp


Sitting on Top of the Blues 

Deep Rush Records / Thirty Tigers – 10215CD

Bobby Rush is the perfect candidate for an Energizer endorsement deal—he just keeps going and going. With a career reaching back to the late 1940s and more than 20 albums under his belt, including the Grammy Award–winning Porcupine Meat (2016), the 85-year old singer and harmonica man has assumed the position of a reigning elder statesman who is truly Sitting on Top of the Blues. 

The 11 selections on this set were composed by Rush and represent a mastery of a wide range of approaches to the blues genre. Rush’s lieutenant in bringing his musical vision to fruition is the multi-instrumentalist Vasti Jackson, who assembled a strong supporting cast, including New Orleans drummers Terrence Higgins and Raymond Weber, bassist Tony Hall, and keyboardist Keiko Komaki. The tracks co-produced by Jackson and Rush highlight the versatility and adaptability of the leader’s approach to vocals and harmonica. Good Stuff rides Jackson’s stripped-down, pulsing Hill Country groove (he plays multitracked bass, drums, and guitar) punctuated by Rush’s wailing harmonica. Weber, Hall, and Komaki, with Jackson on guitar, lock into a percolating Allen Toussaint–inspired R&B groove under Rush’s wry vocal and buoyant harmonica work on Sweet Lizzy. With Recipe for Love, Rush and Jackson go back to the roots and team up for an acoustic guitar/harmonica and vocal country blues duet. It’s a far cry from Rush’s live show booty-shakin’, funk extravaganza and highlights the essence of the man’s blues-drenched soul. Of course, those funky grooves are well represented with numbers like the bouncy Pooky Poo, the sexy jam Slow Motion that brings to mind Isaac Hayes or Barry White, and Shake Til’ You Get Enough, a harmonica-punctuated, sure-to-inspire a line dance soundtrack.

Patrick “Guitar Boy” Hayes is added to the production team for three soul blues outings: Hey Hey Bobby Rush, Get Out of Here (Dog Named Bo), and Bowlegged Woman, which will easily slot into Rush’s live repertoire. Scott Billington, who served as producer last time around, returns for two tracks, You Got the Goods on You, a bouncy R&B outing, and Bobby Rush Shuffle, a rocking, instrumental, James Cotton–style harmonica showcase. Recorded in Southwest Louisiana at Dockside Studio, these songs feature the cream of the local blues and zydeco musicians, including the late Lil’ Buck Sinegal and Roddie Romero (along with Jackson) on guitars, Lee Allen Zeno on bass, and Doug Belote on drums. Bobby Rush may be Sitting on Top of the Blues, but one thing’s for sure—he’s going to keep on going and going.

—Robert H. Cataliotti


Roots and Branches—The Songs of Little Walter

Alligator Records – ALCD 4992

Roots and Branches—The Songs of Little Walter cements Billy Branch’s place among the kings as he and his Sons of Blues dedicate this disc to the best who ever did it. Billy leads the way on harmonica and vocals, with a backing band of longtime Chi-town veteran Sumito “Ariyo” Ariyoshi on piano, Giles Corey on guitar, Marvin Little on bass, and Andrew “Blaze” Thomas on drums. They deliver 14 tracks of the most popular selections from Walter’s repertoire, but the band cooked up their own batch of blues, soul, R&B, funk, and gospel grooves to infuse some freshness into the fabric of these classics—plus a bonus track of Walter’s daughter Marion Diaz talking about memories of her dad. 

On Mellow Down Easy, Branch shows his mastery of range, while the band gets a funk-gospel groove going. Roller Coaster reminds us how well Walter could build a seemingly endless solo over a one-chord vamp. Blue and Lonesome typifies the West Side style, with great blues guitar work à la Otis Rush / Magic Sam from Corey, and some of Branch’s best minor blues harp licks playing G diatonic on a C chromatic harp. It’s also one of his best vocal performances on the entire album. 

Hate to See You Go is a one-chord, Lightnin’ Hopkins–esque boogie which shows the ingenuity of Branch’s chugging, incessant groove and growl. My Babe gets a wonderful New Orleans–flavored tinge that would make Professor Longhair smile. After the first two verses, it suddenly shifts back home to the hard Chicago shuffle, even as the chord progression blends in a few jazz changes for good measure (Giles Corey squeezes off a tasty pair of guitar solo choruses). A few tracks later in the album, we find that It’s Too Late Brother actually has the original My Babe groove on it.

Juke is not the jump blues instrumental we expected—its greasier and funkier, with a slightly different set of chords, even as Branch liberally snatches verbatim quotes from the well-known solo. Equally surprising is the rendition of Last Night, arranged more on the sassy end of the spectrum. It’s a bold move that really works for Branch and Sons, especially with the plentiful piano rolls that Ariyo employs underneath the vocals. 

Just Your Fool / Key to the Highway is a funk fest that Billy’s vocals are custom-tailored for. They modulate out of Just Your Fool and seamlessly segue into a new key with chord changes of Key to the Highway.

Boom Boom Out Go the Lights is played pretty close to the original version—just a good, hard-driving shuffle that swings like mad, with a howlin’ harp attack that really burns. On the other end of the spectrum, One More Chance With You has a smooth-walking bass line and cascading jazzy piano riffs from Ariyo, with guest artist with Shoji Naito sitting in on guitar.

The last two tunes find the band playing it straightYou’re So Fine has the brisk, patented double shuffle, while Blues With a Feeling is as good an example of the classic Chicago sound as any on the album—with beautiful Otis Spann–flavored piano solo, Jimmy Rogers–style rhythm guitar, and the Walter harp squall from Branch. It’s as strong an ending as anyone could have asked for.

Billy and his band are tighter than a snare drum head. Harp blowers everywhere will rejoice.

—Wayne Goins


Mississippi BarBQ

Catfood Records – CFR-028

His label may be based in El Paso, but Zac Harmon puts his Mississippi roots front and center. This disc’s inside sleeve even includes a recipe for Mississippi barbequed ribs (which, of course, would be pork ribs, not the beef usually preferred in Texas).

That said, though, the music spans an agreeably broad stylistic/regional spectrum. The title song, instead of what might be the expected juke-joint raver, is a breezy, urbane, pop-soul celebration of family, community, and heritage, along with the savory soul food that exemplifies it, that recalls R. Kelly’s 2015 hit Backyard Party. Elsewhere, Harmon digs in to more aggressive sounds, such as the spikey, blues-funk, hard-times anthem Make a Dollar Out of Fifteen Cents (on which his voice, unfortunately, can’t match the rough-hewn grit of the sound and storyline). He sounds vocally more at ease with Lord Save Me From L.A., the lament of a formerly idealistic migrant who finds himself ground down by that city’s relentless soul-crushing, high-tech/high-speed Silicon Valley culture. Harmon’s guitar work ranges from in-the-pocket blues sparseness to power-pop grandiosity, but it’s always tasteful and musically on point—no self-indulgent noodlings or pryotechnics. 

Harmon and his band don’t wear their influences on their sleeves, but they’re subtly evident throughout. The undulating bassline, piano/harmonica interplay (along with Bob Corritore’s Cotton-esque harp solo), and lurching cadence of Honey Pleeze recall Muddy Waters’ 1981 version of King Bee; Dan Ferguson’s burbling keyboard line in Smoke and Mirrors sounds based on Stevie Wonder’s Superstition; Sunday Morning After Saturday Night swings with an unforced hipness that invokes Latimore’s classic 1973 take on Stormy Monday (which itself arose in the wake of Lou Rawls and Les McCann’s early ’60s version). 

As noted, Zac Harmon isn’t the world’s most expressive vocalist, and when the occasion calls for grit, anguish, or erotic intensity, he can sometimes sound strained or out of his element. Nonetheless, on a purely musical basis, he and his studio crew here deliver a tasteful, soulful, and winningly diverse set of contemporary blues and blues-based offerings. 

—David Whiteis

southern avenueSOUTHERN AVENUE

Keep On

Concord Records – CRE00951

Southern Avenue caught ears critically and commercially with the successful release of their debut in 2017, and the Memphis retro-soul outfit continues to gain momentum at home and abroad. Their stunning sophomore set should certainly help in that regard. Crafted with care and full of killer singing, playing, and songwriting, Keep On builds on the strengths of their first album and surpasses it. 

Produced by Johnny Black and recorded at Memphis’ Sam Phillips Recording, the band—lead vocalist Tierinii Jackson, guitarist Ori Naftaly, drummer and vocalist Tikyra Jackson, and keyboardist Jeremy Powell—has given their potent R&B, rock, blues, and soul sound a fuller, richer bloom. Her voice equal parts power, clarity, and beauty, Tierinii’s lush vocal blend with sister Tikyra stands out on the love songs Savior and Lucky and the hopeful anthem We’re Gonna Make It; Tikyra matches Tierinii’s vocal force with her drums on the frenetic Jive. Whiskey Love gets a shot of funk from Naftaly, Powell, and bassist Gage Markey’s swirling licks, while their breezy playing on Too Good for You injects a bit of country into their soul. 

William Bell makes a guest appearance on We’ve Got the Music, on which he also shares a co-writing credit. Tierinii’s and Bell’s harmonies, together with Tikyra’s steady drumming and Art Edmaiston and Marc Franklin’s smooth horns, infuse the all-too-brief gospel rocker with the uplifting spirit of the Stax-era Staple Singers. She Gets Me High is a stomping scorcher of a ballad, with Tierinii’s passionately soaring vocals echoed by Naftaly’s torrential fretwork. 

“You get what you put out,” Tierinii sings on the surging title track, and Southern Avenue is certainly doing that. If Keep On is any indication, they will only rise higher from here. 

—Melanie Young


Chicago Here I Come

Wolf Records – 120.840

Vivian Vance Kelly is the daughter of esteemed Chicago fretman Vance Kelly; he and members of his Backstreet Band, one of Chicago’s tightest and most versatile aggregations, accompany her here. Her voice is powerful and expressive, nuanced when the occasion demands it, straight-out stentorian when it’s time to bare her soul, with an undercurrent of witty irony. 

Kelly’s gender-switched version of Z.Z. Hill’s Blues Man, though, might not have been the wisest choice for an opener; she seems to be working a little too hard to fill Hill’s shoes. Better to showcase her gifts as a songwriter, whether she’s purveying a funky, New Orleans–tinged workout (Is It Love?) or a breezy pop-soul ballad (As Simple as This). The influence of Betty Wright makes itself clear in her phrasing and vocal timbre on As Simple as This; as if to remove all doubt, she also turns in a feisty cover of Wright’s Clean Up Woman (although once again it sounds as if she’s working a bit too hard to do justice to material already associated with a well-known vocalist. Similarly, she also takes on Ben E. King’s Stand By Me and Denise LaSalle’s Your Husband Is Cheating on Us.) The title tune, propelled by Stan Nixon’s funk-blues bass, perfectly conveys the urgency of an expatriate longing to return home (Kelly lived in Switzerland for several years), although—paradoxically—in her shout-outs to Windy City blues clubs, she name-checks only venues that cater to predominantly white audiences. 

Kelly is credited as the producer, but in a few places, it sounds as if another take or two might have tightened things up a little; Kelly’s intonation wavers in places, and her phrasing occasionally sounds uncertain (listen to Soft Hearted Woman, recorded live, for a taste of what she sounds like unleashed and singing with full confidence; she sounds similarly sure on the following tack, the soul/R&B-styled As Simple as This, which was recorded in the studio). Nonetheless, this is a promising offering from a singer of great potential—let’s hope she keeps honing her talents and stays on the scene. 

—David Whiteis


There Is No Other

Nonesuch – 591336-2

Rhiannon Giddens has proven to be an amazing musical conceptualist since she embarked on a solo career after her groundbreaking work in reviving the African American banjo and fiddle tradition with the Carolina Chocolate Drops. To name a few of her projects—she acknowledged a lineage of female singers with Tomorrow Is My Turn (2015); collaborated in setting long-lost Bob Dylan lyrics to music on Lost on the River: The New Basement Tapes (2014); celebrated the protest song tradition from African American enslavement to the civil rights movement on Freedom Highway (2017); and, earlier this year, collaborated with Amythyst Kiah, Leyla McCalla, and Allison Russell to explore New World slave narratives and reclaim the early minstrelsy and banjo traditions on Songs of Our Native Daughters. For this recording, Giddens teams up with Italian multi-instrumentalist Francesco Turrisi to broaden the scope of her musical vision to include sounds and genres that are drawn from an array of cultures to present a conception of musical inclusiveness that declares There Is No Other. As she explains in the liner notes: “From the beginning of our musical partnership we have been struck with the commonality of the human experience through music; how instruments, modes, and the very functions of songs and tunes are universal from culture to culture.”

With the exception of four tracks that feature Kate Ellis on cello or viola, all the music is performed by Giddens on minstrel banjo, octave violin, and viola and Turrisi on various wood-frame hand drums, stringed instruments, piano, and accordion. More than on any of her previous recordings, Giddens directly draws upon the full range of her musical background, including her studies in opera at Oberlin Conservatory and her immersion in African American and world folk forms. Turrisi brings a jazz sensibility, traditional Italian music, and his expertise on drums from North Africa and the Middle East into the mix. Kudos must be given to producer Joe Henry and engineer Ryan Freeland for creating an amazingly full, almost orchestrated soundscape with spare instrumentation. 

Of course, Giddens’ warm, resonant, crystalline voice is at the center of all this. She is equally at home couched in the support of a plucked banjo and pulsing hand drum as she intones earthy folk standards like Wayfaring Stranger or Little Margaret, or haunting operatic pieces like Black Swan or Trees on the Mountains. Highlights include the poignant minstrel banjo, piano, and hand drum–supported reading of the Oscar Brown Jr. original / Nina Simone–associated Brown Baby; the driving, North African–accented version of Ola Belle Read’s Gonna Write Me a Letter; and the Giddens/Dirk Powell spiritual He Will See You Through that features Turrisi’s piano and Ellis’ cello supporting the soaring vocal by Giddens. There Is No Other emerges from a musical conception that elevates both the artist and the audience.

—Robert H. Cataliotti


A Diamond in the Rough

Sledgehammer Blues – 2-AQM-1060

Born in Louisiana during World War II, the singer and songwriter known as Mighty Sam McClain passed away in 2015 at the age of 72. As a young man he had waxed a few 1960s singles and worked the chitlin’ circuit before dropping out of the music business during the subsequent decade. Fifteen years later McClain launched a comeback as a stage performer and recording artist, then relocated to New England. Over the next 20 years or so, he released a series of widely acclaimed albums on various labels. Upon his death, the contemporary music scene lost one of its most passionate interpreters of the gospel-inflected southern soul style of blues. Previously Time and Change—Last Recordings, issued in 2016, seemed to mark the final entry in McClain’s impressive discography. Yet, with A Diamond in the Rough he’s back for one last encore, and this intimately produced, 11-track album sparkles brilliantly.

The magic derives in large part from a minimalist aesthetic, for these cuts feature only McClain’s vocals accompanied by acoustic guitar, embellished on a few tracks with a touch of saxophone or flute. That supporting instrumentation—all performed by co-producer Pat Herlehy—though sparse is profoundly effective at highlighting the expressive possibilities of that mighty voice. Moreover, the stripped-down-to-the-essence sound integrates splendidly not only with McClain’s earthy delivery but also with the fundamental messages of the songs, all of which were written or co-written by the singer.

The opener, My Everything, exemplifies the charm of this stark production. As Herlehy lays down a mid-tempo chord progression accented with a bit of hot picking on the acoustic six string, McClain opens his psyche and lets flow a stream of gratitude for his woman. On Grooving, the solo guitarist instrumentally conjures more down-home funk as McClain emphatically proclaims again his happy state of union with a significant other. There’s also a lone and luscious saxophone that discretely retorts to vocals in a kind of call and response. 

That sax resurfaces—and renders a potent solo—in Love’s Gonna Find, co-written by McClain and Charles Neville. The simple yet sincere lyrics promote a message of faith and idealism as the essential counterbalance to real world burdens: “Love is gonna to find a way / All you’ve got to do is lead with your heart / Don’t care what the people say / ’Cause if you believe in God and believe in your heart / Love’s gonna find a way.” Here and elsewhere McClain reveals himself to be a sort of secular evangelist who preaches the good news of love’s redemptive power.

That is not to say there is no despair in the songs. In a number called Where Is the Love? the singer admits frustration at the misunderstandings and indifference of the world. But ultimately it, too, is an uplifting sermon of sorts, which ends with exhortations: “We should be loving one another / We should be taking care of each other.” Lyrically speaking, Everytime is yet another monologue in which a man speaks directly to his woman. Punctuated by lively licks on acoustic guitar, the song reflects on a broken relationship, about which the man still carries a lingering obsession. Southern Land opens with a haunting blend of guitar and vocal moans. In the verses that follow, McClain acknowledges both “the good” and “the bad” emanating from the region of his birth. The song climaxes with a palpably painful pronouncement that he misses his mother, an angst compounded by the realization that he “can never go home again.”

Question consists of a series of queries again addressed directly to his woman. At the end it all comes down to this: “What would I do if I didn’t have you?” In the love that can be shared between two individuals McClain also finds a template for social improvement and the cultivation of hope. For instance, in Believe, amid soft flourishes on flute, he testifies, “I believe, Lord I still believe, that we can love one another before we die / I believe in you / Will you believe in me? / Let’s come together and set our people free / Let’s give them hope / Let’s give them love / That’s what they need.” 

The closing track, Holy Ghost Fever, finds the singer approximating a Van Morrison–like state of trance as he riffs on the title line, prodding his listener to consider whether such divine ecstasy has been personally experienced. Yet it’s not only Christian theology that he cites but also blues deities—particularly Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf—as capable of channeling that titular spirit. It’s a particularly appropriate finale, reminding us how inseparable are the style and substance of gospel from McClain’s own music.

As suggested by the album title, these songs are offered in their natural raw state, not prettified or altered much from the way they presumably came into being. Given that the sound quality and minimalist musicianship are excellent, that organic roughness is a virtue—and a refreshing break from the plethora of overcooked product on the market. As such, A Diamond in the Rough constitutes a fitting swan song for the earnest legacy of Mighty Sam McClain.

—Roger Wood

fruteland jacksonFRUTELAND JACKSON

Good as Your last Dollar

Electro-Fi – 3457

Fruteland Jackson is a good-natured bluesman with an upbeat disposition, a unique character, a true blues persona. Like any old picker who has paid his dues over many decades, he also has a powerful concoction of personal pride, stubbornness, and devotion to his craft. There he is in Chicago, the capital of electric blues, the center of everything except the old-time acoustic blues reminiscent of his birthplace in Sunflower County, Mississippi. He could have dropped the country blues act long ago in favor of the more lucrative electric band sound favored in the Windy City. He could be the main act at Rosa’s or Buddy Guy’s. Yet, he accepts the early evening acoustic gigs, entertaining people with his stories and acoustic picking, holding true to the traditions. Always with his trademark oversized newsboy cap and baggy pants, he is an American original doing his own thing. Yet, even in the acoustic blues he is too often unsung and underappreciated, the awareness of which has given the bard an ornery indignation, but never a loss of humor. He knows who he is. He hung with Honeyboy Edwards, Robert Lockwood Jr., and Homesick James. He is an artist.

Fruteland Jackson is foremost an entertainer, a man who knows how to tell a compelling story, how to mesmerize an audience with his tangy tales, to make them laugh. Often artists with those essential elements can’t translate them well into recordings. Good as Your last Dollar, his first album in a decade, accomplishes it well, with a little help from his friends. Half of the 12 cuts are originals, ballads and stories, each with his trademark falsetto eerily reminiscent of Johnny Shines. Jack de Keyzer supports the album on guitars. Harrison Kennedy comes in on backing vocals, percussion, and harmonica. Julian Fauth joins on piano.

The album starts strong with Johnny Shines’ Two Steps to Hell, with convincing slide guitar and Fruteland sounding just like Shines. Fruteland sparkles on the title cut, Good as Your last Dollar, lamenting a certain undesirable financial predicament—owing money. He gets the mandolin out on Careless Love with Harrison Kennedy joining in to harmonize and blow harp. They pick up on distinctly Muddy Waters riffs in the lament All the Dad I Had, a song that will hit home with anyone who has had a not-so-good father. Fruteland puts on the shtick in his folksy talking blues How’s It Going?, one of his stage favorites, and let’s just say it’s not going too well: “broke, busted, and disgusted and I can’t be trusted; abused and scorned and leveled to the ground.”

Fruteland regularly covers Robert Johnson and he includes his favorite, Love in Vain. The hard-hitting, foot-stomping Peace in Hell by John Nicholas is a convincing blues that showcases Fruteland’s skill as a singer/guitarist. The album closes with the powerful chain-gang chant Blues 2.0: “You won’t get out of these blues alive.” 

Fruteland Jackson is a prodigious practitioner of the acoustic blues. A true American original, one of a kind. Good as Your last Dollar is his most powerful artistic statement.

—Frank Matheis


All Blues

UMe – B0030189-02

Given his recent disclosure that he suffers from a rare degenerative muscular disease and that his current tour will likely be his last, All Blues could be viewed as a denouement of sorts, a final bow in a career that’s taken him from pop idol to a harbinger of hard rock and, ultimately, solo success as a superstar. Those far more skeptical might see the album as yet another take on the standards, a tack taken by many of his contemporaries, from Paul McCartney to Rod Stewart and any number of vintage rockers in between.

In truth, Frampton hasn’t ever entirely left the blues. The scorching sounds he purveyed with Humble Pie shared several blues-based motifs, despite being embellished in a decidedly hard rock / heavy metal tapestry. After the overwhelming and unexpected awards reaped by Frampton Comes Alive!, he was content to plough the mainstream, while also attempting to reprise his earlier efforts with only modest success. Consequently, All Blues could be viewed as Frampton’s ultimate attempt at being taken seriously as a purist and perfectionist, given that it finds him retracing material that remains the indelible essence of music’s timeless template. Likewise, by sharing the spotlight with such master musicians as Kim Wilson, Larry Carlton, Sonny Landreth, and Steve Morse, he proves he’s well able to stand alongside some serious artists for whom the blues is sacred terrain.

While most of the songs are overtly familiar—I Just Want to Make Love to You, She Caught the Katy, I’m a King Bee, The Thrill Is Gone, and Georgia on My Mind in particular—Frampton and friends cover them with credence and conviction. Frampton’s fluid guitar licks are as melodious as ever, making it little surprise that the album’s two instrumentals dominate the effort overall—a lovely take on the aforementioned Georgia on My Mind, which finds Frampton’s studious riffing effectively emulating Ray Charles’ soulful vocal, and All Blues, a dense duet with Carlton that’s as riveting as it is relentless. 

Suffice it to say that those who followed Frampton for his melodies and musicianship won’t be disappointed and may, in fact, view this effort as another step forward towards overall achievement. By the same token, Frampton fans accustomed to his affable approach and sugary sound might not be as appreciative of the fact he’s changed his trajectory. Yet, regardless of whether one considers it a total triumph or merely a satisfying sojourn, everyone can hope that it’s not a final farewell.

—Lee Zimmerman

Living Blues #257 Top 10 Reviews

CEDRIC BURNSIDE CedricBurnside-LP1-1

Benton County Relic

Single Lock Records – SL024

As the grandson of famed bluesman R.L. Burnside, multi-instrumentalist Cedric Burnside has quite a legacy to live up to. But as a four-time Living Blues Awards and Blues Music Awards Drummer of the Year, he is his own man. His 2015 album, Descendants of Hill Country, earned him a Grammy nomination. But all along he has acknowledged his roots: Burnside paid fitting tribute to his famous forbear with the autobiographical R.L. Burnside on 2008’s 2 Man Wrecking Crew, a guitar-and-drums collaboration with Lightnin’ Malcolm.

That instrumental setup has found itself played out by far too many rock and blues rock duos, but with Benton County Relic, the young Burnside demonstrates there’s plenty of life left in the format. Working with fellow drummer-guitarist-vocalist Brian Jay, and recording both in Brooklyn and at Memphis’ famed Ardent Studios, the pair makes a finely textured, stomping record. We Made It opens the 12-song collection in style, and the unalloyed, crunching vibe continues apace all the way to the album’s conclusion. 

The songs demonstrate a healthy variety in arrangement, subject matter and vibe. Get Your Groove On delivers on its title. Typical Day feels like a Muddy Waters–style blues classic and the languid Hard to Stay Cool oozes menace and mystery as it spins out Burnside’s statement of purpose. Elsewhere, more familiar sentiments like Don’t Leave Me Girl are delivered in an arrangement that seems to suggest additional instruments that aren’t there; working together in an audio vérité production style, Burnside and Jay somehow sound like a larger ensemble. 

The album’s songs are divided into two sets—like an old vinyl LP—and each set is identified with a symbol; one is a stylized sun or star, the other likely a moon. From that we can infer that the songs are thematically grouped according to subject matter or feel; it’s true that the second set (containing cuts like Death Bell Blues and I’m Hurtin’) is a bit darker in tone than the first, but setting the player on shuffle won’t lessen the impact of this collection of original material one bit. 

—Bill Kopp

TRUDY LYNNcoverimage

Blues Keep Knockin’

Connor Ray Music – CRM-1803

From the very first swampy note of Trudy Lynn’s Blues Keep Knockin’, one is transported back to a time when female blues belters served notice to all of the guitar-slinging, bad habit–pursuing bluesmen that women can be just as bold, rowdy and ribald as their male counterparts.

From Big Mama Thornton and Big Maybelle in the 1940s and ’50s to Etta James, who topped the charts in ’50s and ’60s, women carved their own niche in the genre dominated by men. Given that proud lineage, it’s no wonder that this Houston singer would also traverse her own unique blues pathway. But despite the fact that she’s been performing in clubs since she was a teenager, made her first studio recordings in the early ’70s and spent several years singing in Houston blues guitarist Clarence Green’s band, Lynn may be one of the best kept secrets in music.

On Blues Keep Knockin’, Lynn’s 13th solo album and follow up to 2016’s excellent I’ll Sing the Blues for You, she puts her husky, yet nuanced voice on full display on the disc’s ten songs. Paired with a solid backing outfit that includes frequent collaborator and Houston harp maestro Steve Krase, Lynn traffics in the tried and true territory of good women loving bad men, struggling to make ends meet and getting what they want when they want it, and she does it all with the conviction of a singer who truly loves the blues.

Krase’s harp kicks off the album on the upbeat shuffle of Blues Ain’t Nothin’, a tune propelled by sizzling guitar by guest Bob Lanza, who returns with some smoldering licks on the slow burn Pitiful.

Lynn delves into her personal relationship with the blues on the title track—which she wrote—an up-tempo shuffle driven by her husky rasp and tasty guitar fills by David Carter. “C’mon in Mr. Blues, sit down, have a seat / I’m just sittin’ here drinkin’ / Have a drink on me.”

Lynn switches deftly from playful to naughty to defiant on the Big Maybelle gem One Monkey Don’t Stop No Show. She gives Hoyt Axton’s Never Been to Spain her own stamp via a slow, funky groove that puts a unique spin on the ’70s classic made famous by Three Dog Night. You can practically hear the pool balls smacking and smell the backroom smoke on When I Been Drinkin’, a down and dirty dose of swampy New Orleans swagger. 

Lynn is joined by Houston guitarist/vocalist Carolyn Wonderland on the closer, Wouldn’t It Make Any Difference to You, with Wonderland offering some righteous fretwork on the mournful track.

Blues Keep Knockin’ is proof positive that it may have taken a few years, but Lynn appears to be an artist who’s just hitting her stride.

—Rod Evans

FRANK BEYcdcover-hires copy

Back in Business

Nola Blue – NB-006

Vocalist Frank Bey’s career extends back to the glory days of deep soul—he toured with Otis Redding in the 1960s—but he had to wait until 1998 (some sources suggest 1996) to record his first album, Steppin’ Out, on his own MAG label. He’s had a few more releases since then, and he’s also maintained an active performing schedule, primarily around the Philadelphia / New Jersey area. His Soul for Your Blues CD (Blue Dot) garnered a nomination for Soul Blues Album of the Year at the 2014 Blues Music Awards.

Although he’s not credited as songwriter—six of the 11 outings here were written or co-written by producer/drummer Tom Hambridge; the set also includes a remake of Mighty Sam McClain’s Where You Been So Long—Bey inhabits these songs as if he’d lived them. Backed by a swaggering, horn-rich studio aggregation equally at home with 12-bar blues and soulful funk (albeit often marred by a rock-like lack of subtlety, especially in Rob McNelly’s guitar solos), his voice is supple yet toughened with a streetsy coarseness. He shines especially on ballads: The Half of It, penned by Hambridge and Richard Fleming, eloquently evokes the country/soul fusion that characterized so much of the classic-era Memphis / Muscle Shoals sound (it could almost pass for a cover of a long-lost James Carr side), and Bey—no doubt summoning influences dating back to his years performing alongside Redding—masterfully immerses himself in that indelible mix of romanticism, angst and soul-cleansing power. Conversely, he deftly summons the complex mix of pathos, regret and philosophical resignation in the ironically lilting pop ballad Ain’t No Reason, and on more conventional soul and soul blues outings he sounds fearless in his dedication to celebrating the joys of both Saturday night and Sunday morning. 

No new territory is blazed here—but then, one of the joys of this music is the way a dedicated practitioner can make the familiar sound new again, and Frank Bey shows himself to be exactly that kind of artist. 

—David Whiteis

MARIA MULDAURmulduar300dpi

Don’t You Feel My Leg: The Naughty Bawdy Blues of Blue Lu Barker

The Last Music Company – LMCD210

When Maria Muldaur was recording her first solo album in 1973, pianist Mac “Dr. John” Rebennack brought her the song Don’t You Feel My Leg. Written by his fellow New Orleanians, the husband and wife team of banjoist/guitarist Danny Barker and singer Louisa “Blue Lu” Barker, it was a hit record for Blue Lu on the Vocalion label in 1938. Muldaur immediately embraced the risqué blues number; it became one of the most popular tracks on Maria Muldaur and remains in her repertoire until this day. The success of the LP brought the Barkers substantial royalty checks, and Muldaur became friends with the couple. In 2016, Muldaur was invited to perform a tribute to Blue Lu at the annual Danny Barker Banjo and Guitar Festival, so she put together a set of songs associated with Blue Lu and a band of top-flight New Orleans musicians. Don’t You Feel My Leg: The Naughty Bawdy Blues of Blue Lu Barker was inspired by the success of that performance.

Muldaur reassembled a rocking band for the recording sessions in New Orleans, and they epitomize the way musicians in that city can create a sound that is simultaneously part jazz, part blues and part R&B. The rhythm section of Herlin Riley on drums, David Torkanowsky on piano, Roland Guerin on bass and Chris Adkins on guitar lay down a spirited underpinning for the familiar, smoky burr of Muldaur’s vocals. It’s particularly fitting to have Riley on the session not only for his groove master abilities but because he was a protégé of Danny Barker and knew the couple well. The cast of six horn men—two each on trumpet, clarinet/saxophone and trombone—in various combinations paint the proceedings with a deep blue feeling and generate a rollicking energy that often features that trademark polyphony the city’s horn players create. 

Back in 1973, Muldaur found the perfect balance between an alluring sensuality and playful humor on Blue Lu’s number, and that is certainly the case once again on these 12 selections. The lyrics may be naughty and bawdy, but they’re never nasty or offensive because Muldaur knows how to deliver them with a wry cleverness. The program is captivating from start to finish. On Leave My Man Alone, Muldaur’s coy delivery is enhanced by Riley’s stick work peppering the groove, Torkanowsky in full New Orleans piano-professor mode and saxophonist Roderick Paulin’s fiery solo. Trumpeter Kevin Louis’ opening trumpet line sets a blues-drenched mood for Muldaur’s slow and sultry take on Loan Me Your Husband. All six horns join in as Muldaur leads the band through the raucous boogie Now You’re Down in the Alley. Muldaur shows that she can swing brightly as she engages in a call and response with the band on A Little Bird Told Me. With Trombone Man Blues, Muldaur really shines as she stretches her lines to emulate the sound of a trombone and works Danny Barker’s double-entendre lyrics for maximum effect: “He could push it back in forth / He could slide it side to side / But when he changed to tuba / Ooh—I had to grab my things and hide,” setting up trombonist Charlie Halloran for an extended solo. Don’t You Feel My Leg: The Naughty Bawdy Blues of Blue Lu Barker pays tribute to a great New Orleans blues singer and testifies to the vitality and mastery of Maria Muldaur as she continues to mine rich veins of American roots music.

—Robert H. Cataliotti


I’m Still Around

Third Street Cigar Records – TSC 105

We can be very glad that Johnny Rawls is still around. His smooth, soothing, sensuous vocals define the phrase “sweet soul music” and he remains the best soul blues singer today. Mississippi-born Rawls has received at least 16 Blues Music Award nominations; Rawls’ newest CD is one of the best of the year, so it should certainly win him a few more nominations. He’s joined on the album by an able band of musicians, including Larry Gold on guitar, Johnny Newmark on bass, Cadillac Dan Magers on keyboards, Scott Kretzer on drums, Ric Wolkins on trumpet, Mark Lemle on saxophone and John McGhee on guitar.

The album kicks off with the groovin’ vibe, bright guitars and wailing horns of Running Back to You; the song would fit right in on any collection of Carolina beach music, and if you’re not shagging in your chair as you listen to this song, then you need to check your pulse. If there’s ever been a perfect blend of guitar, horns, vocals and background vocals, this is it. What You Do to Me scampers along Newmark’s bass line, propelled by Rawls’ vocals and the horns of Wolkins and Lemle. Rawls tenderly touches his lover’s heart on the powerfully heart-rending love letter, Darling I Love You. It’s slow-burning soul blues in the tradition of Bobby “Blue” Bland’s Members Only or Jerry Butler’s A Brand New Me. One of the most gorgeous songs on the album is the up-tempo Back It Up on Me, on which Rawls’ vocals float on the ethereal voices of his background singers and on Lemle’s sax. On the title track Rawls tells his story of life in music; he reminds us that he’s been up and he’s been down, but he wants the world to know that he’s still around. The album closes with Rawls’ own take of a familiar old gospel tune, God Been Good to Me. In Rawls’ hands, it’s a bright, moving-on-down-the-road spiritual that offers praise and thanks for making it through every day and making it this far in life.

  There’s not a bad song on I’m Still Around, and the best songs display Rawls’ ability to get inside a song and deliver with honesty, emotion and soul, and to create a beautiful moment that touches us or gets us moving. Thank goodness he’s still around and sharing his gift with us on albums like this one.

—Henry L. Carrigan Jr.


Bad Mouthin’

Yep Roc – YEP-2593

Born into a music-loving family, Tony Joe White grew up listening to his parents and siblings play and sing on their front porch. It wasn’t until his older brother brought a Lightnin’ Hopkins album home, however, that the Louisiana native was inspired to pick up the guitar himself. Though not known as a blues artist per se, the influence of the blues has nevertheless filtered through his evocative slice-of-life songs and playing style over the years. On his latest release, Bad Mouthin’, he focuses strictly on the blues, recording five blues-based originals and six covers of songs by or associated with Hopkins, Jimmy Reed, Charley Patton and others. 

Recorded in a barn on White’s Tennessee farm and produced by his son Jody, the album has a relaxed, intimate atmosphere and a warm sound. Most tracks feature just White and his guitar, with shots of harmonica peppered throughout and occasional backing from drummer Bryan Owings—who often tours with White—and bassist Steve Forrest. These elements combined capture the spirit of White’s recent live performances. 

Two of White’s songs are among his earliest compositions. The driving title track thrums with drained discontent, and the forlorn Sundown Blues rolls along with a shuffling, Reed-esque rhythm. His bass-baritone voice is subtly expressive, conjuring a lover’s caress on Cool Town Woman or a low rumble of thunder on Big Boss Man. He opens Hopkins’ Awful Dreams with Bad Dreams, a brief, moody instrumental, then plays and sings his idol’s song with spare, crawling licks and deep despair. John Lee Hooker’s Boom Boom is juiced up with a sexy, rocking beat. Elvis Presley was one of many artists to cover White’s songs—most famously Polk Salad Annie—and here White returns the favor by giving Heartbreak Hotel a lowdown, muted spin. 

In a sense, this is the album that Tony Joe White has always been destined to make. A bone-deep cut of blues at its most elemental, Bad Mouthin’ brings White’s music and his inspirations full circle. 

—Melanie Young


ALCD 4985
ALCD 4985

Revolution in Your Heart

Alligator Records – ALCD 4985

The soulful title track of Lindell’s new album illustrates his powerful ability to grab us from the song’s first note and to keep driving us deeper and deeper into the sounds he builds layer upon layer. Like Dylan’s Like a Rolling Stone, Lindell’s Revolution kicks off with a snare shot, but Lindell then builds the song out from his crunchy guitar chords; at under three minutes, the song joyously launches, catches and carries us along, and accomplishes its thematic journey with bright encouragement to look inside yourself.

The rest of Revolution in Your Heart follows the lead of the title track. While most of the tracks are under three minutes, they pack a musical punch, and most of them keep us moving with their propulsive rhythms, many reminiscent of a New Orleans street parade. California native Lindell plays almost all the instruments on the album, but Kevin McKendree joins him on piano on Millie Kay, and Willie McMains provides drums and percussion. 

The funked-up, wah-wah drenched Big Horse combines some of the pedal magic of Hendrix with the country rock of the Burritos and Byrds in a song whose roaming sound mirrors the restless quest chronicled in the lyrics. Pat West shimmers with bright guitar chords and sounds, while Kelly Ridge gallops along to a driving snare; it’s an up-tempo, country-flavored song that sounds a little like what would happen if Stephen Stills met the Surfaris who then met up with Pure Prairie League and wrote a song. Lindell is a crisp guitarist who knows just when to bend the strings to take a song in an unexpected direction. Appaloosa is a funky rocker that mirrors the rhythm of a horse trotting down a road, while Millie Kay is a full-blown country ballad. The Sun Don’t Shine has echoes of the Gentrys’ Keep on Dancin’, if that driving pop song were written by Chuck Berry, Delbert McClinton and Kris Kristofferson. The Sun Don’t Shine showcases Lindell as a songwriter, guitarist and singer.

  Revolution in Your Heart celebrates life, love and joy, and there’s no way you can sit still while Lindell’s album is playing. His driving guitars wash over you, his lively and affectionate lyrics grab you, and every song moves your feet and your heart.

—Henry L. Carrigan Jr.


I’m Doin’ My Thang

Ecko – ECD – 1175

Ms. Jody’s “thang” is lusty celebration, flirtatious and enticing, with just enough serious-minded meditation on the vicissitudes of life and love to keep herself from becoming a novelty act. By now she’s honed her act so sharply that it’s almost redundant to describe it—she’s virtually an eponymous genre unto herself.

The title tune here is structured closely around Marvin Sease’s I’m Mr. Jody—both a key to this album’s strengths and a potential warning sign. Grafting new lyrics onto a familiar melodic and rhythmic framework is a well-known conceit, and Jody pulls it off with aplomb—she sounds as sassy and irrepressible as ever, and we’re delighted to dance (and booty-shake) right along with her. But following that song with Curiosity Ain’t Gonna Kill This Cat, a virtual remake of her earlier Your Dog’s About to Kill My Cat (albeit with a newly assertive, and welcome, lyric message), makes one wonder whether someone at Ecko is either resting on laurels or running out of ideas.

  Fortunately, a lot of the other tracks here bespeak originality, at least as far as lyrics are concerned. Jody’s own Let’s Play Hide & Seek winningly fuses romanticism and eros; We’ve Got the Real Thing, another Jody original, is a ballad shot through with both ecstasy and longing (we’re never quite sure whether the singer is celebrating a love affair or fantasizing about one); it showcases Jody at her most emotionally complex and satisfying). The CD’s closer, Never Goin’ Back, is likewise notable for its complexity—riding atop a bass line evocative of Betty Wright’s Tonight Is the Night, Jody delivers her fable of romantic regret with bittersweet pathos.

At their best, the contributions from John Ward and his compatriots at Ecko—I’m a Cowgirl in the Bedroom and the bluesy We’ve Got to Cheat on Schedule—both celebrate and elaborate on Jody’s finely crafted and seemingly inexhaustible stage persona (even if an outing like A Kitty Ain’t No Match for a Full Grown Cat stretches that particular metaphor until it yowls). Nonetheless, it’s clear that Ms. Jody has the ability to expand her emotional palette and encompass more fully the kind of emotional maturity and texture exemplified here by offerings like Real Thing and Never Goin’ Back. Now that she’s an established star, both she and her Svengalis at Ecko should summon the courage to take a chance and challenge established southern soul expectations: it’s time to get serious with Ms. Jody and allow her to blossom into the full-fledged soul singer she has it in her to be.

—David Whiteis 

BILLY F GIBBONSBillyGibbons_BBB_photo_by_Blain_Clausen

The Big Bad Blues

Concord – CRE00746

What’s there to say about a new Billy Gibbons’ album except to put it on and crank it up. Gibbons returns on his new solo album to straight-ahead funky rockin’, propelled by his and Elwood Francis’ guitars and harp, Greg Morrow’s and Matt Sorum’s drums, Joe Hardy’s bass, James Harman’s harp and Mike Flanigin’s keyboards. Gibbons’ follow up to his 2015 Perfectamundo, The Big Bad Blues delivers just what the title promises: slow blues rumbles, down-and-dirty blues rockers, playful lyrics and scalding guitar and harp work.

  Second Line chugs along with rocking, Chuck Berry–like riffs; it’s a driving dance tune with fret-running lead riffs on the bridge. Gibbons kicks off the album with his characteristic growling and grunts—“yeah, yeah, yeah”—between lines on Missin’ Yo’ Kissin’, a propulsive rocker with drums that lead into the bridge, and the lead phrases on the riff echo La Grange and Sharp Dressed Man. My Baby She Rocks takes off on a slow-moaning blues rock flight that celebrates the singer’s lover rocking and shaking him all night long. Gibbons and band capture the rhythms of a night of slow and easy—and earth-moving—love making with their measured blues and cascading guitars and harp. Gibbons delivers an electrifying version of an early Muddy Waters’ song, Standing Around Crying, on which his vocals growl and moan like Waters’; the song undulates gently, capturing the anguish of waiting for a love that’s now gone. The funky That’s What She Said rockets off the record with its funky harp wails, while Mo’ Slower Blues chugs along with its slow chord progressions and deliberate rhythms. The album closes with a bright calypso pop song, Crackin’ Up, which is just plain fun.

The Big Bad Blues gives us Gibbons at his very best; he’s having fun playing this music, and the best way to listen to this record is to let the music wash over you and let Gibbons take you where he leads. You won’t be sorry.

  —Henry L. Carrigan Jr.

MARTY CHRISTIANMarty Christian Rambling Blues cover CMYK copy

Rambling Blues

Sabidog Records – CD002

As a solo artist, bandleader and veteran of Henry Gray and Carol Fran’s bands, Marty Christian has cultivated a musical approach that spans multiple genres, including funk, country, zydeco and soul. Yet the heart of his music has always been the blues. The latest solo release from the Lafayette, Louisiana–based guitarist and singer-songwriter is truly that—on Rambling Blues, he performs six classic blues songs alongside seven of his originals, accompanying himself on guitar.

And it’s Christian’s guitar skills that are front and center here, whether the Delta-style picking on his lovely version of Ida Cox’s Rambling Blues, the frenzied, knife-like attacks on Muddy Waters’ Country Blues or the flowing-molasses licks on Sitting on Top of the World. The sound is focused and intimate throughout, and the playing at times so intense you can hear the clacking of the guitar body, such as on the lover’s plea Now Now. His take on Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out is surprisingly jaunty, with an almost ragtime feel. The freewheeling style and energy of his originals Carnival of You and Write Me a Letter bring to mind early Van Morrison. Three instrumentals round out the set, including the amusing, unusual morsel Russian Tea Biscuit. 

Bottom line, Marty Christian makes beautiful music, and Rambling Blues is another fine showcase of his artistic gifts. 

—Melanie Young

Living Blues #253 Top Ten Reviews


Goin’ Platinum! 

Easy Eye – No #

Singer/guitarist Robert Finley was already in his 60s when Tim Duffy of the Music Maker Relief Foundation found him playing on the streets in Helena, Arkansas, during the 2015 King Biscuit Blues Festival. That chance encounter resulted in Finley’s 2016 album, Age Don’t Mean a Thing, on which he showcased his grizzled-sounding but resonant baritone voice and dexterous fretboard chops on fare ranging from deep 12-bar blues through soul ballads to propulsive, R&B/pop-flavored flag-wavers. Seldom has the sobriquet “soul blues” been more appropriate, even though Finley’s sound is gutsier and more clearly rooted in tradition than that of most contemporary artists who are usually described that way.

All of the songs here were written or co-written by producer and label owner Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys (his collaborators at various points include John Prine and Nick Lowe, among others); the storytelling is eloquent throughout, atmospheric and evocative without descending into bathos or cliché. Finley’s vocals, meanwhile, are more than up to the lyrics’ challenge: he can evoke passion, mystery, erotic tension, jubilation, outrage and spiritual yearning with equal aplomb, all the while avoiding histrionics or overkill. The songs themselves connect with straight-ahead blues, soul, R&B, folk pop and rock ’n’ roll, replete with tantalizing and obscure references (the set’s opener, Get It While You Can, for instance, summons echoes of the Stones’ 19th Nervous Breakdown) and enough chordal, melodic and harmonic swerves to please musically adventurous listeners, even as they remain sufficiently straight-ahead to be attractive to more roots-minded aficionados.

It’s difficult to imagine how an artist with gifts as vast and varied as Robert Finley’s could have remained under the radar for as long as he did, but his emergence over the last few years is cause for celebration.

—David Whiteis


Get What You Deserve

Blue Note  –  B002717002

Hillard “Sweet Pea” Atkinson was born in Detroit in 1945 and came of musical age under the influence of the Dells’ Marvin Junior and the Temptations’ Paul Williams. He got his break when the multi-talented Don Was of Was (Not Was) / Orquestra Was fame heard him singing at a Motor City union hall in the late ’70s and took him on as the band’s principal vocalist. In addition to his collaborations with Was, Atkinson became involved in the Boneshakers with guitarist Randy Jacobs and worked extensively as a backing vocalist, most notably with Lyle Lovett. Although he was featured to good effect on albums such as Orquestra Was’ Forever’s a Long, Long Time and the Boneshakers’ Book of Spells, his only previous outing under his own name was Don’t Walk Away, which was produced by Was for Island in 1983.

Was, of course, is now president of the venerable Blue Note label and has taken advantage of that position to return his old bandmate to the spotlight. Was himself produced three of the set’s ten tracks, dipping into the 1960s soul bag for Freddie Scott’s Are You Lonely For Me, Baby and Am I Grooving You and resurrecting the J.B.’s 1973 funk chant You Can Have Watergate Just Gimme Some Bucks and I’ll Be Straight, with Boneshakers’ associate Mindi Abair’s tenor sax taking the Maceo Parker role. The balance of the program was produced by Keb’ Mo’, who brought his own Slow Down and Just Lookin’ to the session, along with offerings from the songbooks of Bobby Bland, Johnnie Taylor, Bobby Womack and the Temptations, and the title track from Jerry “Wyzard” Seay of the Atlanta-based funk rock aggregation Mother’s Finest, where Atkinson trades verses with Vida Simon and Wyzard himself contributes acoustic guitar, keyboards, bass and drums. Elsewhere, accompanists include Keb’ Mo’ and Jacobs on guitar, with such A-list session men as saxophonist Joe Sublett, bassist Reggie McBride and drummer James Gadson.

As for Atkinson, he still sports the snap-brim fedora, dour countenance and gravelly vocals that make one wonder how he came by his stage name—and wonder even more how he could have gone 35 years between albums. Happily, Atkinson is still on top of his game, and you can file this one, along with the recent comeback albums by William Bell and Don Bryant, among the must-haves for connoisseurs of the classic sounds of soul.

—Jim DeKoster



MusicMatters Records – 1191925

At age 92, pianist and singer Henry Gray is still going strong after seven decades of living the blues life. A Louisiana native, Gray first made his mark in the blues world when he relocated to Chicago after his military service in World War II, most famously as the pianist in Howlin’ Wolf’s band for 14 years. Muddy Waters, Jimmy Reed and Little Walter are among the many other stars he supported during his tenure in the Windy City. He returned to Louisiana in 1968 and has performed regularly in his home state and toured nationally and internationally over the subsequent five decades! His vitality as an artist is certainly evident in his appearance in the 2015 documentary I Am the Blues.

Gray first met zydeco musician Terrance Simien at the 1984 New Orleans World’s Fair, when he was 59 and the up-and-coming zydeco star was 19. When their paths crossed again recently, Simien was compelled to document the older musician’s remarkable musical durability. He plays washboard and leads the band, the Creole Cats—Paul “Lil Buck” Sinegal on guitar, Bob Corritore on harmonica, Danny Williams on organ, Stan Chambers on bass and Oreun Joubert on drums—that he put together to support Gray on 92.

The album captures Gray doing what he does best—playing rocking, postwar, urban, Chicago-style blues with a dash of Louisiana spice. The pianist shows off his prodigious boogie-woogie skills on the original instrumental Henry’s House Rocker. Gray pays homage to a mentor from his early days in Chicago on Big Maceo Merriweather’s Worried Life Blues, which features a stinging lead guitar from Sinegal and surging harmonica and organ fills that support Gray’s piano wizardry from Corritore and Williams. While time has taken some toll on Gray’s vocals, he remains an emotive and spirited singer, and is particularly effective on the classic Stagger Lee and the fitting original Blues Won’t Let Me Take My Rest. On one track Simien interviews the elder statesman, getting him to discuss his formative years when his father urged him to play gospel, which he illustrates with Thomas Dorsey’s Lord Will Make a Way Some How, and his attraction to the blues with a solo rendition of Blues Won’t Let Me Take My Rest. The program concludes with Simien narrating Gray’s life story to the elder statesman’s rollicking solo accompaniment. With 92, Henry Gray is a living testimony to poet Al Young’s assertion that “the blues don’t bruise / they only renew.”

—Robert H. Cataliotti


Rough Cut

Alligator Records – ALCD 4980

After basking in the glow of the 2016 multiple award-winning album, The Beautiful Lowdown, Curtis Salgado has found a way to shake things up a little by sharing the spotlight with his longtime blues cohort, virtuoso guitarist Alan Hager for his newest venture, Rough Cut. Portland-born guitarist Hager and Eugene-based blues harp ace Salgado have traveled together in similar circles since 2003 and performed as a duo since 2008, when they formally joined forces in 2015 and Hager became the lead guitarist for Salgado’s band. “One reason I made this record was to show him off,” Curtis proudly announced. Indeed, this Alligator Records release successfully combines the talent of both Oregonians, who penned six originals balanced with a healthy dose of well-executed covers, augmented by a supporting cast of guest artists scattered across 13 tracks.

I Will Not Surrender is the opening track that has real meaning for Salgado—the song laments his will to find the strength to overcoming the darkness that accompanies so many funerals of his loved ones. Delivered as an unrehearsed, one-take solo feature, the slow-drip, minor blues drone finds Curtis delivering potent lyrics over Hager’s conjuring of John Lee Hooker– style guitar riffs laced with tremolo and reverb drenched over Skip James, Little Son Jackson and Charlie Patton’s souls—you can feel the cold in the lady’s casket.

So Near to Nowhere showcases Salgado’s chugging and wailing harmonica technique as he unfurls the doomsday refrain, “Tomorrow who knows, tonight who cares? It feels like I’m next to nothin’, so near to nowhere…” Curtis follows the evocative chorus with a short but bursting blues harp solo, with Alan spitting out crystalline acoustic chord changes underneath.

One Night Only features guest appearances of Jimi Bott on drums and Jim Pugh on piano as they join in for a medium-tempo juke joint shuffle. There’s no bass, which makes it all the better—the tune breathes so much better with the boogie-woogie groove in Pugh’s left hand. The already-familiar fan favorite I Want My Dog to Live Longer (The Greatest Wish) again reveals Alan’s mastery of Big Bill Broonzy’s guitar technique and Curtis’s gritty vocals in the touching ode to man’s best friend.

After these first four original pieces, the duo dips into the well-established blues canon. I Can’t Be Satisfied is a beautiful and precise rendition of Muddy’s tune. Augmented with Russ Kleiner’s snappy snare brushes on drums and Keith Brush’s thumpy doghouse bass line, Salgado’s well-executed vocals flow seamlessly over the sinewy slide licks from Hager.

On Too Young to Die, Hager literally plays two guitar parts at once (walking bass line and chord progression!) while Salgado masters the tremolo-laden voice of Sonny Boy II along with the patented riffs on harp to match. This is followed by an excellent replication of Son House’s quivering vocal style on Depot Blues, which is a real treat—supported by the absolutely great finger-picking technique on Alan’s acoustic guitar. We then suddenly find ourselves in Sunday church service with Morning Train. You’ll get good religion when you hear this one, as LaRhonda Steele’s backing vocals and Brian Foxworth’s drums are added to full effect to propel the gritty Salgado lead vocals and great slide playing of Hager—Pops Staples would have appreciated this good ol’ fashioned gospel revival.

Brush’s bass and Kleiner’s drums lend a hand on as Curtis and Alan do serious justice to the Elmore James version of You Got to Move (from the 1966 posthumous release, I Need You.) Salgado captures all the subtle vocal nuance of Elmore, while Hager does the electric slide with glee.

Salgado unveils another original tune with Hell in a Handbasket, a solo performance with Curtis demonstrating the barrelhouse piano playing technique very much in the style of Kansas city pianist Jay McShann—check out the way he rolls off those descending right-hand blues riffs so effortlessly, with delightfully descriptive lyrics throughout the storytelling vocal approach.

We finally hear Hager’s virtuosity on the Robert Wilkins 1929 classic Long Train Blues—he delivers a stellar vocal performance, as he accompanies himself with his other-worldly “Piedmont-meets-Patton” style of fingerpicking guitar, while Curtis strides alongside him with percolating harp jabs—it’s one of the best tracks on the entire disc.

The Gift of Robert Charles, a Hager-penned original (named after his beloved father), leads with a slow instrumental where he plays slide and fingerpicks simultaneously, and it is stunningly beautiful. He then shifts uptempo into a galloping pace with a touch that would make Chet Atkins blush. Hager casually flaunts such great technique, replete with chiming harmonics thrown in at the end of phrases for good measure. The album closes with an acoustic trio performance of Broonzy’s I Want You By My Side—keeping true to the Jazz Gillum version, Curtis offers mellow vocals with high-pitched harmonica, Brush’s acoustic bass, and Alan’s acoustic guitar.

This excellent balance of Pre-War blues standards and originals works extremely well, and compliments go to Johnny Lee Schell, who did an excellent job mixing the album—it sounds superb. “We did it for the love of the music,” Salgado was quoted as saying. “This is where are hearts are.” Indeed, this is American Classical music at its finest.

—Wayne Goins


No Mercy in This Land

Anti- – 87561-1

When Ben Harper and Charlie Musselwhite met up in the studio in 2013 to record Get Up!, they hardly expected that it would win a Grammy for Best Blues Album in 2014. The pair first met when John Lee Hooker brought them into the studio to play on the song Burnin’ Hell. Harper and Musselwhite discovered then a groove, a similar love for the blues—and for searching for old records in dusty record bins—and passion for digging deep into the soul of a tune.

No Mercy in This Land showcases the deep-in-the-blues partnership that Harper and Musselwhite continue to develop. Harper masterfully commands a vocal range that soars from blues moan to soul-stirring shouts, and Musselwhite bends and blows his harp as he weaves mournful phrases into some tunes and jumping and joyous trills into others. Harper’s blues moans in the first four bars of the album’s opening song, When I Go, move slowly into a classic, slow-burning tune of loss and the things you leave behind and the things you take with you in order to survive. Bad Habits is a bright jump blues tune that delivers a down-and-out theme of the unraveling of love; the singer cries at least once a day, declaring that his lover, or his bad habit, is “like a puzzle in a box / but I’m the one coming all apart.” A classic soul song, Love and Trust, recalls the best of Curtis Mayfield and Mavis Staples. With its Muddy Waters vibe, The Bottle Wins Again, which may be the best song on the album, masks its message about the mixed joys and anguish of drinking in a shimmering, shouting tune. A gospel piano opens the ballad When Love Is Not Enough, which recalls the Stones’ I Got the Blues from Sticky Fingers, and Harper’s just-right phrasing reveals the aching, regretful feeling of the song. The title track features Musselwhite’s gravelly vocals in a song that could almost be an anthem for today’s troubled times: “What would be the first thing you would say to the Lord / won’t you please help me to understand / is there no mercy in this land?” Yet, at the very end of the song, the music stops for a moment as Musselwhite asks plaintively whether or not mercy exists for his murdered mother, buried beneath the headstone at which he gazes.

Harper and Musselwhite sound as if they’ve been playing together for a lifetime; the songwriting and playing set No Mercy in This Land in a category by itself, and it’s not too early to say that this is one of the best albums of the year.

—Henry L. Carrigan Jr.


The Luckiest Man

Stony Plain – 1396

Over 50 years into a sterling guitar career, Ronnie Earl, a name he took as a tribute to Earl Hooker, shows no signs of a letup on his new release, The Luckiest Man. He’s been part of many high-caliber lineups and this one is no exception. The listener hears every note of Earl’s crisp guitar. All songs are slow to mid-range in tempo, with superb intertwinings with keyboardist Dave Limina. Drummer Forrest Padgett and bassist Paul Kochanski provide a solid foundation.

Boston’s Diane Blue handles vocals on six songs beautifully. On Never Gonna Break My Faith, she goes to the gospel side of the tracks with a prayer for souls lost before their time. On Death Don’t Have No Mercy, a Gary Davis classic, Blue plaintively sings, “Death don’t have no mercy in this land / It’ll come to your house and it won’t stay long / You look in the bed and somebody be gone.” On Heartbreak she laments losing her baby, singing, “If I was a judge / I’d send him to the chair / I’d sit right down beside him / And he wouldn’t leave me here.”

Early on, Earl played with Otis Rush and here he remembers him with Rush’s anthemic So Many Roads. “So many roads, so many trains to ride” is a line that never gets old. This is one of two songs that clock in at over ten minutes in length.

There are five instrumentals on this CD, with Jim’s Song and Sweet Miss Vee being slow and dreamy with a special sweetness.

On Long Lost Conversation, Earl rejoins his old band the Blue Tones including the track’s songwriter, Sugar Ray Norcia, on vocals and harp. Mike Welch adds guitar, and Anthony Geraci plays piano. It’s a “late night hour, sittin’ alone on my bed, dreaming of a long-lost memory” sort of song.

There are many landmarks on Earl’s train. On his first record he played slide to Sunnyland Slim’s piano; he played with Muddy Waters in 1979; in 1988, after eight years with Roomful of Blues, he formed the Broadcasters; and since then, he’s won three Blues Music Awards.

Earl once stated that the purpose of the Broadcasters is to broadcast peace, hope, good vibrations and soul. The Luckiest Man adds to that purpose.

—Robert Feuer


Roll and Tumble

Waxploitation – No #

A veteran of R.L. Burnside, Jessie Mae Hemphill and Otha Turner’s bands, guitarist and drummer R.L. Boyce is a bona-fide Hill Country elder. Though Roll and Tumble is the Como, Mississippi, native’s second album (his solo debut was 2007’s Ain’t the Man’s Alright), it’s notable for a couple of firsts—the first blues release from the Waxploitation label and earning Boyce his first Grammy Award nomination in the Best Traditional Blues Album category.

Luther Dickinson and David Katznelson co-produced Roll and Tumble, and Dickinson plays guitar along with Boyce and Lightnin’ Malcolm. Father and son drummers Calvin Jackson and Cedric Burnside also join in, with bass drummer Andre Otha Turner rounding out the ensemble. Sinuous, mesmeric grooves permeate these songs, as does a laidback, jovial atmosphere. Recorded on Boyce’s porch and at the Dickinsons’ Zebra Ranch studio, easy laughter and banter are scattered throughout, and together with the ambient noise this lends an intimate feel and presence to the sessions.

Boyce’s vocals and playing style naturally bear the influence of his peers and mentors, and he’s a joy to listen to here, full of high spirits. The musicians cleave closely together, letting Boyce take center stage and following wherever he leads them. His mournful, a cappella singing of the opening line of the title track is especially arresting. Along with his versions of this and R.L. Burnside’s Poor Black Mattie and Going Down South, there are seven songs credited to Boyce. A highlight is Which R.L. Do You Want, in which he briefly encapsulates his life in music. His turns of phrase can be funny and biting; on the moody, slow grind Don’t Worry My Mind he declares that when he dies he’s going to go out “with my ass in the air”: “Don’t come to my funeral and think you’re gonna look at my face / You won’t see nothing but ass and nuts.”

Hopefully that’s something he won’t have to worry about for a long time. Lively and entrancing, R.L. Boyce’s Roll and Tumble is a prime addition to the Hill Country canon, and should bring him to a new, wider audience.

—Melanie Young



Ham-Bone Records – HBR109CD

Since the release of Hamilton Loomis’ last album, 2013’s Give It Back, the Texas blues-rocker became the father of a baby boy. That joy was tempered when Bo Jordan Loomis was diagnosed with congenital hyperinsulinism at age one, a rare condition in which the pancreas overproduces insulin, causing blood sugar to drop dangerously low. His son is thankfully doing well, and Loomis has channeled his focus and gratitude into Basics, a new collection of songs pulsing with positivity and high energy.

Loomis’ blend of Texas blues, rock and funk, honed from his days of playing with artists such as Johnny Copeland, Bo Diddley and Joe Hughes, has a more refined, organic feel. With lyrics like, “I need an injection of your sweet affection,” the flirtatious rocker Sugar Baby nods to the reason Loomis wrote it—as a thank-you to the organization Congenital Hyperinsulinism International, which works to improve the lives of those affected by the rare disease. Other tracks, such as the earnest Reason, Getting So Big and Prayer, reflect a new father’s love, wonder and hope. His guitar soloing is as fiery and intense as ever, especially on cuts like Ain’t What It Ain’t, Come and Get Me and Love Can Do. Loomis’ desire to give back has also led him to mentor young musicians in and around Houston, and at the end of Funky Little Brother there’s a brief, fun instrumental jam featuring some of his students.

Brimming with rocking grooves and heartfelt performances, Hamilton Loomis’ Basics is anything but.

—Melanie Young

ALBERT CUMMINGSAlbert Cummings Cover

Live at the ’62 Center

Ivy Music Company – No #

Albert Cummings returns home to play his powerful brand of blues rock to a joyous crowd. On October 15, 2016, Cummings, joined by Warren Grant on drums, Yanko Valdes on bass, Pete Levin on keyboards and Kit Holiday and Lydia Harrell on background vocals, played a raucous, rumbling, fiery set at the ’62 Center for Theatre & Dance at Williams College in Cummings’ hometown of Williamstown, Massachusetts.

Cummings prowls up and down the neck of his guitars, sometimes like a menacing lion searching for the killer chord and sometimes like a domestic cat looking to trap an unsuspecting note and play with it until it bends to his will. No Doubt opens with a scalding lead that deftly moves into a phrase from Hendrix’s Crosstown Traffic that serves as the underlying musical theme of the tune. Cummings growls his way around power chords and just-right lead riffs to question his lover’s faithfulness and the consequences of her cheating. Cummings sometimes forces too many notes into his lead solo on the bridge, which means he misses some notes here and there, but he’s a crafty player who dazzles with his ability to run the neck with speed. Holiday and Harrell’s ethereal background vocals are a highlight of the song. A musical phrase from Elvis’ Little Sister (penned by Doc Pomus) kicks off the down-in-the-heart I’ve Got Feelings Too, a blues stomp in which Cummings soars on his lead solos. Lonely Bed is a slow-burning jazz blues number introduced by Cummings’ string-bending lead runs; the influence of the late, great Alvin Lee of Ten Years After is clear on the phrasing of Cummings’ solos on this song. Cummings and his band deliver a choogling, soulful take on Elmore James’ Hurts Me Too; Levin takes a turn on a keyboard solo that might be the highlight of this version, for otherwise this version is not especially memorable. The album closes with a medley of Cummings’ Glass House and Dickey Betts’ Midnight Rider; the best part of Midnight Rider is the background vocals, but Cummings manages to capture the lonely desperation of the song with his power chords, especially in his lead solos on the bridge. It’s a fitting way to close the evening and the album.

Live at the ’62 Center illustrates that hearing it live is the way to listen to blues rock. This is evident in the DVD of the performance that is also available now, but even if you didn’t have the DVD to watch, you can feel the energy of the crowd on this album, urging Cummings to higher and higher ground in his solos and his singing. Cummings’ music clearly lifts the crowd—and us—out of our seats.

—Henry L. Carrigan Jr.


Muscle Shoals Has Got the Swampers

Malaco – MCSD8026

Long before Lynyrd Skynyrd made them famous with the lines “Muscle Shoals has got the Swampers / and they’ve been known to pick a song or two,” this group of studio musician—the Swampers—was making some of the most memorable music of the late ’60s and early ’70s. Keyboard player Barry Beckett, bassist David Hood, guitarist Jimmy Johnson and drummer Roger Hawkins met up at Rick Hall’s FAME Studio in Muscle Shoals in 1967, where they played on James and Bobby Purify’s I’m Your Puppet. The group soon created their own studio called Muscle Shoals Sound, located at 3614 Jackson Highway. In this studio the Swampers laid down tight rhythm tracks for Aretha Franklin’s Respect, R.B. Greaves’ Take a Letter Maria, the Stones’ Brown Sugar and Wild Horses and Paul Simon’s Kodachrome, among hundreds of other well-known tunes.

Now we get to hear the Swampers in all their glory on Muscle Shoals Has Got the Swampers, a collection of previously lost tracks. While many of the tracks were recorded at Muscle Shoals Sound Studio between 1969 and 1978, some were recorded in the ’90s at the Swampers’ second studio at 1000 Alabama Avenue. As David Hood says, “we’re so pleased; we had so much music, and we never thought it would see the light of day.”

The 14 instrumentals on the album showcase the incredibly tight playing of the band, as well as canny songwriting. Above all, though, these songs capture the moments when four of the world’s best musicians gather around and play just for their own pleasure. The genius of the Swampers is their sure-handed ability to play every style of music. On Don’t Bug Me Johnson, Barry Beckett (who wrote the tune) rambles sparklingly over his keys, and Jimmy Johnson replies with his lead riffs on the song’s bridges in a call-and-response fashion. It’s a crafty jazz suite that recalls Brian Auger’s Oblivion Express. Muscle Shoals, written by the band, starts out with a Santana-like drum solo before moving to a lush, slow and sensuous jazz overture that pays homage to the beauty of their home, the Shoals. Whiplash, written by guitarist Pete Carr, features his crisp, clean, shimmering guitar riffs laid down over a swampy jazz foundation; the riffs recall the lead guitar of Three Time Loser on Rod Stewart’s Atlantic Crossing (1975), on which Carr and the other Swampers played. Backporch Soul is a laid-back, slow groove—that has some moments resembling Skynyrd and the Allman Brothers—while Cruisin’ Jackson Highway jumps propulsively down the road, capturing the feel of driving around the Shoals. Eddy’s Place is a jump blues number that would propel listeners out of their seats at any juke joint in town.

Muscle Shoals Has Got the Swampers gives these incredible musicians their due, allowing them to shine brightly and giving us a chance to hear their own tightly crafted styles. We can only wish there’s more of their music still to be released.

—Henry L. Carrigan Jr.

2016 Living Blues Awards

LB award winners

Critics’ Poll

Blues Artist of the Year (Male)         
Buddy Guy

Blues Artist of the Year (Female)
Shemekia Copeland

Most Outstanding Blues Singer
Otis Clay

Most Outstanding Musician (Guitar)
Lurrie Bell

Most Outstanding Musician (Harmonica) 
Sugar Blue

Most Outstanding Musician (Keyboard) 
Allen Toussaint

Most Outstanding Musician (Bass) 
Bob Stroger

Most Outstanding Musician (Drums) 
Cedric Burnside

Most Outstanding Musician (Horns) 
Trombone Shorty

Most Outstanding Musician (Other) 
Freddie Roulette – Lap steel

Best Live Performer
Bobby Rush

Comeback Artist of the Year
Wee Willie Walker

Artist Deserving More Attention
Matthew Robinson

Best Blues Albums of 2015

Album of the Year
Shemekia Copeland – Outskirts of Love – Alligator Records

New Recordings / Contemporary Blues
Cedric Burnside Project – Descendants of Hill Country – Cedric Burnside Project

New Recordings / Southern Soul
Wee Willie Walker – If Nothing Ever Changes – Little Village Foundation 

New Recordings / Best Debut
The Peterson Brothers – The Peterson Brothers – Blue Point Records

New Recordings / Traditional & Acoustic
Leo “Bud” Welch – I Don’t Prefer No Blues – Big Legal Mess

Historical – Pre-war
Lead Belly – The Smithsonian Folkways Collection – Smithsonian Folkways

Historical – Postwar
Bobby Rush – Chicken Heads: A 50-Year History of Bobby Rush – Omnivore Recordings

Blues Book of the Year

Jas Obrecht – Early Blues: The First Stars of Blues Guitar – University of Minnesota Press

DVD of the Year

Muddy Waters and Friends – Soundstage: Blues Summit in Chicago, 1974 – Sony/Legacy

Producer of the Year New Recording

Bruce Iglauer and Toronzo Cannon – Toronzo Cannon – The Chicago Way – Alligator Records

Producer of the Year Historical Recording

Jeff Place and Robert Santelli – Lead Belly – The Smithsonian Folkways Collection – Smithsonian Folkways

Readers’ Poll

Blues Artist of the Year (Male)
Keb’ Mo’

Blues Artist of the Year (Female)
Shemekia Copeland

Most Outstanding Musician (Guitar)
Buddy Guy

Most Outstanding Musician (Harmonica)
Charlie Musselwhite

Most Outstanding Musician (Keyboard)
Allen Toussaint

Best Live Performer
Buddy Guy

Most Outstanding Blues Singer
Buddy Guy

Best Blues Album of 2015 (New Release)
Buddy Guy – Born to Play Guitar – RCA/Silvertone

Best Blues Album of 2015 (Historical Recording)
Lead Belly – The Smithsonian Folkways Collection – Smithsonian Folkways

Best Blues DVD of 2015
Muddy Waters and Friends – Soundstage: Blues Summit in Chicago, 1974 – Sony/Legacy

Best Blues Book of 2015
Peter Guralnick – Sam Phillips: The Man Who Invented Rock ’n’ Roll – Little, Brown and Company


December 2016 Top 10 Reviews


A Sweat Soaked Night in 1970s Atlanta

Music Maker – MMCD181

Back in the 1960s, Atlanta guitarist Albert White worked in such elite local groups as his uncle Piano Red’s legendary Dr. Feelgood & the Interns and the Tams, but had been little heard from for many years when he and fellow Interns guitarist Curtis Smith showed up on a Music Maker CD by Beverly Watkins, the group’s “nurse,” in 1996. His own Music Maker CD, Soul of the Blues, followed in 2007, and he has continued to work with that organization as part of its traveling revue.

Now Music Maker has come out with this disc of a dozen vintage recordings featuring White in a variety of contexts. The bulk of the set—nine tracks—was recorded live at two different venues on the soul side of town in the late ʼ70s with the Rockers, a horn-driven outfit that served as the first-call band to back visiting soul acts. The selections include recent hits from Teddy Pendergrass, the O’Jays and Donny Hathaway as well as blues classics from Junior Parker, Charles Brown and Freddie King and a version of Funny How Time Slips Away that unexpectedly owes more to composer Willie Nelson’s original than to Joe Hinton’s 1964 hit. The set also includes a pair of home recordings with the Four Souls rehearsing the Tams’ 1968 hit Be Young, Be Foolish, Be Happy and the James Brown anthem There Was a Time, and it concludes with a brief Jesus in the Building from the ten-piece Gospel Crowns. Sound quality, from a portable cassette machine, is limited but tolerable.

While this is something of a departure for Music Maker, it’s a most welcome one, offering as it does an opportunity for time travel back to what appears in retrospect to have been a golden era.

—Jim DeKoster


One of a Kind

Malaco – MCD 7549

Grady Champion kicks off this set with Bump and Grind, a song originally recorded by Z.Z. Hill on Malaco in 1981; it’s now regarded as an early classic of the southern soul blues genre. Aside from being a not-so-subtle reminder of Malaco’s importance in helping to codify the modern blues sound, it also seems as if Champion (or his Malaco teammates) might be reaffirming his own link to both soul blues and the earlier 20th century blues lineage. Champion constricts his throat into a spit-and-gristle rasp evocative of Hill while his harmonica harks back to Sonny Boy Williamson II, whom he has cited as one of his original blues harp heroes.

That track, in fact, sets the tone for the entire set. Although many of Champion’s lyric and melodic conceits bespeak a modernist sensibility, he leavens it with a deep blues feel—shuffle rhythms, 12-bar song structures, an emphasis on passion-infused but unforced guitar work (from, at various points, Eddie Cotton, Mr. Sipp, Theodis Ealey and Elvin Bishop) as well as his own harp and, perhaps above all, those swamp-muck vocals. Even when the overall sound and/or subject matter comes closer to what one might expect from a southern soul modernist (Heels and Hips, One of a Kind), Champion sings like an unreconstructed back-country savant, weathered but unbowed, conveying life lessons and rakish witticisms with equal aplomb. Meanwhile, the instrumentation (the late Harrison Calloway arranged the horns—one of his very last recording projects) also conveys a rootsy feel, intentionally or not.

These days, quite a few artists are finding themselves struggling to create music that will appeal (and sell) to listeners on both sides of the putative “blues”/“southern soul” divide. Grady Champion’s new-school/old-school blend may not be the game-changing solution the world is looking for, but it seems to be working for him (he’s gigging steadily at venues ranging from casino show lounges to hipster blues clubs and roadhouses), and this recording should help him continue on that idealistic and hopeful path.

—David Whiteis

big bill morganvieldBIG BILL MORGANFIELD

Bloodstains on the Wall

Black Shuck – BSR-003

The similarity between Bill Morganfield’s voice and his father’s is uncanny—all the more so since Bill has learned to relax and let that voice resonate on its own. Arguably, he’s expanded his scope—offerings range from the expected Chicago postwar chestnuts (associated with the likes of Otis Rush, Willie Dixon and Muddy himself) to gems from Lonesome Sundown (Lost Without Love), Jimmy McCracklin (Help the Bear) and Frank “Honeyboy” Patt (the nightmarish title tune). The overall ambience, though, is pretty much the same. In places, the old Chess studio sound is recreated with such verisimilitude that one is tempted to check the credits and see if Morganfield didn’t slip in an old backing track just to keep us awake.

Morganfield’s slide work also echoes Muddy’s, and so does much of his songwriting. When You Lose Someone You Love, for example, is modeled closely on You Can’t Lose What You Ain’t Never Had—although, in characteristic fashion, Morganfield makes it personal. Rather than a paean to lost romantic (or erotic) love, it’s a heartfelt meditation on his own grief over his mother’s death. (Help Someone, on the other hand, is a rollicking barnburner that sounds closer to New Orleans, or possibly Rosco Gordon–era Memphis, than the South Side of Chicago.)

The surprise here is the “bonus track,” a song Morganfield wrote and recorded for the upcoming Fox TV series Shots Fired. Updating Morganfield’s slide and rootsy vocals with electronically tweaked beats and hip-hop production, courtesy of noted studio maven C-Note, is sure to send chills down the spines of a lot of Morganfield’s long-time admirers (“Et tu, Bill?”), and I won’t pretend that many—probably most—LB readers won’t receive it with dismay; but, as Morganfield himself suggests, it may be just this kind of thing that the blues will need if it’s going to make the transition back into anything approaching the mainstream for the contemporary younger African American audience. If nothing else, a lot of young TV viewers who probably never thought they’d care about anything remotely associated with Muddy Waters will now hear his son providing some of the musical impetus to a show that depicts the hardscrabble reality of urban life as uncompromisingly as Muddy and his contemporaries did with their own “devil’s music” over half a century ago.

—David Whiteis

davell crawfordDAVELL CRAWFORD

Piano in the Vaults, Vol. 1

Basin Street – BSR 1404-2

It is rather appropriate that New Orleans pianist/singer Davell Crawford has begun to release a series of solo piano recordings in light of the passing of Allen Toussaint in 2015. Piano in the Vaults, Vol. 1 represents a passing of the baton in the lineage of Crescent City piano professors. Crawford can take his position, along with longtime maestro Mac Rebennack, as the carrier of the flame for this tradition that reaches back to the turn of the 19th century Storyville. Crawford’s musical talent is so multifaceted that he is at home in jazz, blues, funk, gospel, R&B and rock, which often makes it hard to pin down a musical identity. But with these 13 tracks, recorded between 1998 and 2013, he makes it perfectly clear that this classic New Orleans piano sound and style are his source points.

With the first two tracks, Song for James and Booker Days, Crawford acknowledges the legendary pianist/singer James Booker as his central muse. The former is a jaunty catalog of Booker piano techniques, and the lyrics to the latter provide a personal reflection on Booker’s music. Crawford was a child prodigy on the piano, accompanying church choirs at age ten, and gospel music has had a profound effect in shaping his approach to both vocals and piano. That influence is apparent on the poignant original What Is a Home Without a Mother? His grandfather was the R&B great James “Sugar Boy” Crawford (of Jock-A-Mo fame), and the grandson gives up his props on two of his grandfather’s collaborations with Dave Bartholomew—the gospel-flavored instrumental Morning Star and the mournful blues ballad You Gave Me Love. He knows how to dig into the blues as evidenced by his reworking of Jimmy Rogers’ Walkin’ By Myself. Crawford takes things all the way back to the roots of the city’s piano tradition with a laid-back ride through Jelly Roll Morton’s Buddy Bolden’s Blues.

The program deftly blends Crawford originals, like the Bolden-sounding Teana Titty and barrelhouse blues Baby Please Be True, with New Orleans piano warhorses, like Make Me a Pallet on Your Floor, Percy Mayfield’s Please Send Me Someone to Love and Jimmy Cox’s Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out. The lone track where Crawford gets some help is a reworking of the Nellie Lutcher hit Fine Brown Frame, which features a rollicking, fun-filled duet with classic Louisiana soul blues diva Carol Fran. Davell Crawford has played a lot of different music over the past three decades, and with Piano in the Vaults, Vol. 1 he reveals himself as a genuine New Orleans music master.

—Robert H. Cataliotti


Strong Like That 

Severn Records – CD0067

The Fabulous Thunderbirds rose to fame as one of the founders of the mid-1970s blues rival scene in Austin, Texas, on the power of irrepressible vocalist/harmonica master Kim Wilson and the always right on time playing of guitarist Jimmie Vaughan.

On the band’s 13th studio album, Strong Like That, they continue the evolution from raucous, guitar-driven, blues-soaked party hounds to a band that successfully melds blues, R&B and soul into a tight mix that still packs plenty of grit and hints at the T-Birds signature roadhouse blues inclinations.

Wilson long ago assumed the mantle as the band’s only remaining original member, with Vaughan having departed in 1990 to be followed by a succession of accomplished and occasionally sensational guitarists and backing musicians that allow Wilson to explore his dual fascination with the blues and soul genres.

Strong Like That is stocked with songs that allow Wilson to explore the inner crooner that has coexisted with his bawdy cousin going back to such chestnuts as Full Time Lover from the band’s 1979 debut The Fabulous Thunderbirds.

While Johnny Moeller (guitar), Kevin Anker (keyboards) and Steve Gomes (bass) are holdovers from the band’s previous album, 2013’s On the Verge, drummer Robb Stupka joins the current Thunderbirds lineup. Album guests include Austin guitarist Anson Funderburgh, a frequent Wilson collaborator.

The album kicks off with a cover of the Temptations classic (I Know) I’m Losing You, which gets a funky treatment thanks to a propulsive groove laid down by guest drummer Wes Watkins and Gomes and bolstered by sizzling steel guitar work by guest Roosevelt Collier.

The Al Jackson–penned Drowning on Dry Land gets a lift from great horn section accents. Meet Me on the Corner is propelled by Gomes’ sweetly serpentine bassline and is one of two songs on the album written by Wilson. The title track, written by Gomes, closes the album on an upbeat, defiant note and is driven by Wilson’s assured vocals—“They can’t drag me down / because I’m strong like that”—Little Walter–inflected harp, a tasty keyboard riff and mellow horns.

—Rod Evans


The Blues, The Whole Blues and Nothing But the Blues

Red House Records – RHRCD 297

The Blues, The Whole Blues and Nothing But the Blues is compelling testimony to David Bromberg’s mastery of American roots music. For this fourth CD since his 2007 return from a 17-year recording hiatus, Bromberg teams with producer Larry Campbell for a second straight outing to deliver a recording that encompasses a broad spectrum of blues styles drawn from sources such as Robert Johnson, Bessie Smith, Bobby “Blue” Bland, Sonny Boy Williamson II, George “Little Hat” Jones, Muddy Waters and Ray Charles. Although Bromberg’s command of a multiplicity of string instruments has taken him far and wide stylistically through various genres that today have found a home under the Americana umbrella, he is deeply rooted in the blues, having been a guitar student of the Rev. Gary Davis in the 1960s.

Bromberg receives stellar support from his regular band—guitarist Mark Cosgrove, bassist Butch Amiot, drummer Josh Kanusky and fiddler Nate Grower—augmented by keyboardist Bill Payne, Campbell on guitar and as horn arranger, and on one track, a vocal chorus. Campbell has emerged from his collaborations with the late Levon Helm as a premier roots music producer, and once again the sound on this recording is clear, resonant and alive. There has always been a kind of self-deprecatory, tongue-in-cheek humor to Bromberg’s vocals, and that is still the case here as he interjects spoken monologues and asides into the performances.

Over the years, Bromberg has been largely cast as a folky, acoustic player, yet on the lion’s share of these tracks he plays electric guitar. The program kicks off with a searing slide intro and a muscular two-guitar attack on Johnson’s Walkin’ Blues. The Elmore James–inspired original You Don’t Have to Go features more blistering slide work that duels with Grower’s soaring fiddle. Bromberg serves up two rousing, horn-driven numbers: the rocking Why Are People Like That?, a Bobby Charles tune written for The Muddy Waters Woodstock Album and Bland’s Yield Not to Temptation, which finds him sparring with a vocal chorus. Williamson’s Eyesight to the Blind is transformed into a swinging romp with lively solos from Grower on fiddle and Payne on organ. Perhaps the standout of the electric guitar outings is the traditional country tune 900 Miles, which Campbell and Bromberg recast as a Howlin’ Wolf–inspired, crunching blues rocker that rides on a seductive guitar riff that instantly brings Hubert Sumlin to mind and features a devastatingly wicked slide solo. On the acoustic side of things, Bromberg delivers a tour de force solo rendition of Ray Charles’ A Fool for You, magically evoking the maestro’s piano with his flawless picking. Another acoustic standout finds Bromberg revisiting Delia from his first album in telepathic duet between his fingerpicking work and Campbell’s slide guitar. The verdict on The Blues, The Whole Blues and Nothing But the Blues is that David Bromberg has drawn upon decades of listening to and performing the blues to craft a flawlessly played and entertaining survey of the variations and possibilities within this still vibrant and adaptable source point for American music.

— Robert H. Cataliotti

dr_john_cd_cover-v1a_frontVARIOUS ARTISTS

The Musical Mojo of Dr. John: Celebrating Mac and His Music

Concord Records CRE00216

Ten years after launching his career on the late 1950s New Orleans R&B studio scene, Mac Rebennack transmogrified into Dr. John the Night Tripper, and his keyboard and guitar playing, vocals, songwriting and production work over the subsequent five decades have elevated him to legendary status in the realms of blues, jazz, R&B, funk and rock ’n’ roll. Rebennack certainly deserves the recognition that is signaled by The Musical Mojo of Dr. John: Celebrating Mac and His Music, an all-star tribute recorded at the Saenger Theatre in New Orleans during Jazz Fest week in 2014.

Rebennack’s “musical mojo” is rooted in a blues-tempered sensibility, committed to the deep funk and percolating rhythms of his hometown, and infused with a darkly mysterious spirituality. There is something unique about him, an ineffable quality that ultimately does not come across throughout this two-disc set. Musical director Don Was assembled a first-rate house band composed of New Orleans (guitarist Brian Stoltz and keyboardist John Gros) and non-New Orleans (keyboardist Chuck Leavell and drummer Kenny Aronoff) musicians, and the big surging blues-tinged rock and R&B-flavored sound they achieve is well played, energized and highly polished, but not loose, funky and shadowy, like the doctor when his mojo is working.

One factor that may account for the lack of a distinctive Dr. John flavor is that only ten of the 22 tracks are original Rebennack compositions. While many of the cover tunes have been recorded and played regularly by him over the years, these performances are just not imbued with the man’s trademark mojo. Irma Thomas’ singing remains one of the wonders of the R&B world, and she delivers a knockout version of Buddy Johnson’s Since I Fell for You, but it does not evoke a connection to the honoree. The case is similar with performances like Jason Isbell’s take on Huey Smith’s Blow Wind Blow or the Radiatorsʼ Dave Maloneʼs hip cover of Lead Belly’s Goodnight Irene or Ryan Bingham’s revival of Bill Quateman’s Back By the River.

There are some tracks where the song choices are puzzling, like Shannon McNally doing Bobby Charles’ Street People because he was a buddy of Rebennack or John Fogerty tearing it up on the monster groove of Gary U.S. Bonds’ hit New Orleans, seemingly because of the locale it celebrates. Rebennack’s deep catalog is packed with so many underrated tunes, so when artists unearth these gems and apply their distinct talents and recast them, the mojo starts working, like Widespread Panic and the Dirty Dozen joining forces for a sprawling Familiar Reality or Warren Haynes’ devastating slide attack on You Lie. Another surprise is that, aside from Big Chief Monk Boudreaux’s expectedly solid rendition of Earl King’s Big Chief, there is no overt nod to Professor Longhair, the seminal source point for Rebennack’s mojo. This also points to a lost opportunity; rather than have the late Allen Toussaint run through his own Life, two grand pianos could have been set side by side to let Toussaint and Rebennack work out on some Tipitina variations.

Assembling this much talent to extol the wonders of Dr. John assuredly resulted in some genuine fireworks, including Mavis Staples sparring with the brass band polyphony on Lay My Burden Down; the unprocessed second line funk of drummer Zigaboo Modeliste and bassist George Porter on Junko Partner; the punchy swing of Let’s Make a Better World by John Boutté and Cyril Neville engaged in a passionate call-and-response with the McCrary Sisters on Indian Red. Ultimately, it is the man himself who truly shines here. Rebennack appears on five tracks, and four of them (even Mac cannot make Bruce Springsteen funky on Right Place Wrong Time) testify to the fact that Dr. John’s mojo is still working, including a stellar piano/vocal/saxophone trio version of Please Send Me Someone to Love with Rebennack, Aaron Neville and Charles Neville; trumpeter Terence Blanchard providing the perfect complement to the poignant vocal on Rain and extended full-band treatments of I Walk on Guilded Splinters and Such a Night.

—Robert H. Cataliotti

rory blockRORY BLOCK

Hard Luck Child: A Tribute to Skip James

Stony Plain – SPCD 1373

Hard Luck Child: A Tribute to Skip James is the fifth CD in singer/guitarist Rory Block’s “Mentor Series,” musical paeans to the blues masters she met and learned from as a teenaged guitarist in the 1960s: Son House, Mississippi Fred McDowell, Rev. Gary Davis, Mississippi John Hurt and now, Skip James. Each of these men was a blues visionary with a uniquely definitive approach to the idiom, and James could be the most challenging subject in the group not only because of his idiosyncratic guitar stylings and hauntingly plaintive vocals but because he also boasted an inimitable approach to the piano.

Block opens the program with Nehemiah James, her original biographical homage to James that explores the secular/scared duality of his art while riding a resonant slide riff and a hip little percussion groove. She then works her way through nine classic tracks from the James repertoire, including Special Rider Blues, Cypress Grove Blues, Devil Got My Woman and Hard Time Killing Floor Blues. Block has been playing and singing the blues for five decades, so she applies her own style to the material, rather than trying to pull off likely doomed-to-failure imitations. While James’ guitar work featured an intricate fingerpicking style, Block integrates her signature slide work into this approach. For her adaptions of two songs that James performed on piano, If You Haven’t Any Hay, Get on Down the Road and Little Cow and Calf Is Gonna Die Blues, Block plays in a slinky, slide style that imbues the tracks with a bouncy swing. When she explores the sacred side of James’ musical impulses, she creates a gospel feel by including a multi-tracked vocal chorus on Jesus Is a Mighty Good Leader and I’m So Glad.

Hard Luck Child: A Tribute to Skip James closes with the title track, which Block delivers with a sure handed confidence and a passionate resonance that bears witness to the existential insight of the man who crossed paths with a 15-year-old girl all those years ago. She clearly took the music and life lessons he imparted to heart, and this celebration of a mentor is filled with music that is both historical and vital.

— Robert H. Cataliotti

4 Pnl 1 Tray CD Dgpk [Converted].New 8-26-09MITCH KASHMAR

West Coast Toast

Delta Groove Music – DGPCD174

West Coast Toast is a salute to the West Coast blues harmonica tradition that was fostered when George “Harmonica” Smith settled in Los Angeles in the mid-1950s, eventually inspiring young local players like Rod Piazza, William Clarke and Kim Wilson. Mitch Kashmar emerged from the next generation of players in this style that essentially melds postwar Chicago blues with jump blues and swing grooves. His first studio session in ten years, this recording reveals a soulful singer and a harmonica man with impressive chops. Ultimately, what makes West Coast Toast so effective and enthralling is the super tight band Kashmar has assembled, including Junior Watson on guitar, Bill Stuve on upright bass, Fred Kaplan on piano/organ and Marty Dodson on drums. They work together like a well-oiled machine to deliver a hard-driving, stripped-down sound on a program that mixes Kashmar’s original tunes and blues classics.

The opener, East of 82nd Street, epitomizes the West Coast style, a swinging jump blues instrumental featuring bebop-inspired harp/guitar unison lines and Watson’s staccato guitar fills. That bop influence, particularly a classic like Horace Silver’s Doodlin’, seems to be the inspiration for the loping groove and signature riff on Kashmar’s Canoodlin’, an almost eight-minute instrumental that gives plenty of room for the harmonica, guitar and organ to stretch out. Evidence of Silver’s influence also shows up in both Kaplan’s piano work and the Latin-tinged groove on a reworking of Willie Dixon’s Too Many Cooks. 

Kashmar’s harmonica is definitely at the center of things, and he really cuts loose on the rocking shuffle The Petroleum Blues. More outstanding guitar/harmonica interplay distinguishes Billy Boy Arnold’s Don’t Stay Out All Night. Makin’ Bacon (possibly referencing Bacon Fat, the landmark late 1960s/early 1970s band that featured both Smith and Piazza on harmonica) is a funky, soulful instrumental that allows Kashmar to strut his stuff. Kashmar shows off his versatility as he blows unamplified harp in the pre-war Chicago style on John Lee “Sonny Boy” Williamson’s Alcohol Blues, which also features some rocking dialogue between Kaplan’s piano and Watson’s guitar. Mitch Kashmar proves himself a powerful ambassador of an under-recognized school of blues harmonica; hopefully, it will not take another ten years to follow up West Coast Toast.

— Robert H. Cataliotti

thornetta davisTHORNETTA DAVIS

Honest Woman

Sweet Mama Music – No #

“Well-kept secret” has become a blues cliché, but it’s hard to avoid when discussing Detroit’s Thornetta Davis. Her 1990 recording debut featured her fronting a Detroit-based soul band called the Chisel Brothers; five years later, she cut an EP with the funk-metal band Big Chief, who also accompanied her on Sunday Morning Music, her first recording under her own name (one song from that album, Cry, was used in an episode of The Sopranos). Since then, despite a few high profile out-of-town engagements such as the 2000 VH1/Vogue Fashion Awards, she has seemed mostly content to remain in Detroit, cultivating an avid local following and dropping tantalizing hints of an ongoing recording project that even some of her staunchest admirers questioned whether it would come to fruition. (A 2000 live CD, recorded at Detroit’s Music Menu, only whetted their appetite for a full set of new material.).

Now, after 20 years, she has made good on her promise. Longtime Davis watchers won’t be surprised at this set’s eclecticism. That Don’t Appease Me spikes the well-known You Don’t Love Me / Wang Dang Doodle riff with rock-like force, even as Davis’ vocal delivery keeps it resolutely blues-focused; Set Me Free alternates between atmospheric neo-gospel and mid-range funk as Davis sings her story of a spiritual seeker vacillating between desperation and faith. I Believe (Everything Gonna Be Alright) references one of Muddy Waters’ trademark vocal routines before tearing into a hard-chugging, slide-driven, roadhouse-rocking boogie. Get Up and Dance Away Your Blues and Can We Do It Again invoke the jazzy élan of Detroit’s Hastings Street heyday; the title track sounds crafted to break into the southern soul market; Feels Like Religion is a soul-stirring celebration of life. An array of special guests, including guitarist Larry McCray and harpist Kim Wilson, widen the palette even further.

Through it all, Davis conveys intense emotion without overkill, relying instead on her gifts for timbre, tone and texture, even at her most unfettered; and the soul-bearing honesty that powers both her songwriting and her singing makes itself evident throughout. Dare we hope that the Blues Diva of Detroit has finally decided to unfurl her wings and ascend to her rightful place in the modern day blues firmament?

—David Whiteis