Living Blues Radio Report March 2020

 


  1. Roomful of Blues, In a Roomful of Blues, Alligator
  2. Tinsley Ellis, Ice Cream in Hell, Alligator
  3. Whitney Shay, Stand Up!, Ruf
  4. Phantom Blues Band, Still Cookin’, VizzTone
  5. Rory Block, Prove it on Me, Stony Plain
  6. Robert Cray Band, That’s What I Heard, Nozzle/Thirty Tigers
  7. Betty Fox Band, Peace in Pieces, Foxy Cavanagh
  8. Sass Jordan, Rebel Moon Blues, Stony Plain
  9. Ryan Perry, High Risk, Low Reward, Ruf
  10. Casey Hensley, Good as Gone, VizzTone
  11. Albert Castiglia, Wild and Free, Gulf Coast
  12. Mark Hummel, Wayback Machine, Electro-Fi
  13. Ben Rice & RB Stone, Out of the Box, Middle Mountain Music
  14. Liz Mandeville, Playing with Fire, Blue Kitty Music
  15. Jimmy Johnson, Every Day of Your Life, Delmark
  16. Mary Jo Curry Band, Front Porch, MJC
  17. John “Blues” Boyd, “What My Eyes Have Seen…”, Gulf Coast
  18. Albert Cummings, Believe, Provogue
  19. Frank Bey, All My Dues Are Paid, Nola Blue
  20. Bernard Allison, Songs from the Road, Ruf
  21. Thorbjørn Risager & The Black Tornado, Come On In, Ruf
  22. Avey Grouws Band, The Devil May Care, AGB
  23. Sister Lucille, Alive, Endless Blues
  24. Backtrack Blues Band, Your Baby Has Left, VizzTone
  25. Cindy Cashdollar, Waltz for Abilene, Silver Shot

Living Blues #265 Top 10 Reviews

JIMMY JOHNSON 

Every Day of Your Life 

Delmark – DE-861

Several others like to claim the title, but 91-year-old Jimmy Johnson is almost certainly our oldest active bluesman, and his chops—vocal and instrumental—remain virtually undiminished after over 60 years of work as both sideman and leader. His guitar work, aggressive and deeply emotional, is also enriched with jazz-tinged sophistication (appropriate for a man whose early guitar heroes included the likes of Grant Green and Kenny Burrell), and his keening, high-tenor voice remains striking and immediately recognizable. 

Johnson has always been eclectic; although he cut his teeth in Chicago clubs alongside such veterans as Freddie King, most of the bands he worked with in the 1960s and early ’70s specialized in soul and pop fare, a stylistic bent that was reflected in early recordings. As a sideman he accompanied the likes of Tyrone Davis, Otis Clay, Ruby Andrews, Walter Jackson, Denise LaSalle, Bobby Rush, and Cicero Blake, among others. Only later, when the blues “revival” among white listeners opened the door to a new career, did he re-brand himself as a bluesman. 

Although this disc, like most of Johnson’s latter-day work, is solidly blues based, his diverse palette is on full display. Hard-charging funk rhythms (along with a delightful excursion into reggae-laced buoyancy in My Ring), his trademark minor-key chord constructions, and a sharp-eyed, poetic lyricism permeate this set. Most of the songs are originals; the borrowed material (Fenton Robinson’s Somebody Loan Me a Dime, Percy Mayfield’s Strange Things Happening, Bobby Bland’s Lead Me On [still credited to Don Robey, but actually penned by Lavelle White]) is graced with eloquent lyric storytelling and plenty of harmonic and melodic depth. His guitar playing is, quite simply, a master class in blues fretwork—impeccably structured and logical, yet laced with a powerful emotional thrust. He also showcases his too-often underrecognized gifts as a keyboardist on Lead Me On. The band—including pianist Roosevelt “Hatter” Purifoy, guitarist Rico McFarland, bassist J.B. Fuller, and drummer Pooky Styx—is drawn from Chicago’s A-list of sidemen; vocalist Typhanie Monique contributes some torrid gospel-soul backing to the title tune.

There’s at least one thing, though, that Jimmy Johnson has yet to do—he needs to revisit I Feel the Pain, his harrowing paean to the Middle Passage and its murderous legacy. It’s spellbinding in solo performance (he sang it for me, accompanying himself on keyboard, in his home studio when we spoke for my current book, Blues Legacy) but by his own admission it didn’t quite succeed on Two Johnsons Are Better Than One, his 2001 album with his brother Syl. If he can, he should include a fresh version of it on his next project. For now, though, this release is a must-hear—Jimmy Johnson is really a bit of a miracle, and it’s one that we’re all blessed to be able to share. 

—David Whiteis


JOHNNY RAWLS

I Miss Otis Clay 

Third Street Cigar – No #

Although steeped in old-school soul and soul blues, Johnny Rawls isn’t really a “deep soul” artist like his late friend and mentor Otis Clay. His timbre, though winningly gritty, is relatively light, and as a songwriter he favors sprightly rhythms and pop-tinged melodic lines. Still, Rawls, whose resume includes a stint as O.V. Wright’s bandleader and musical director, has the heart of a soul man. That heart is proudly on display throughout this set. 

Lyrically, Rawls is first and foremost a storyteller, and his dedication to meaningful narrative comes through in his singing as well. Whether he’s crooning an ironically tender complaint to an emotionally distant lover (Can’t Read Your Mind), celebrating the joys of unfettered carnality (the bouncy Slow Roll It, which has no relation to the well-known Sir Charles Jones song), or ruminating on the purpose of life itself (The Wind), he delivers his message with a minimum of histrionics, preferring to rely instead on unadorned emotional honesty. The title tune, as expected, is melancholy yet uplifting, with strong echoes of People Get Ready in its chord structure (appropriate for a tribute to a gospel-infused soul man like Clay), and if Rawls’ voice occasionally wavers or tightens as he delivers it, that only serves to accentuate the depth of feeling his song invokes, and which clearly possessed him during its recording. 

Johnny Rawls’ discography is substantial—he’s dropped at least 18 albums as leader or co-leader (including three alongside Clay himself), as well as a couple that he recorded early on with his erstwhile musical partner L.C. Luckett—and he deserves much wider recognition than he has so far achieved. Let’s hope that this disc, along with a little luck and the support of big-eared listeners, will help him achieve it.

—David Whiteis


LUCKY PETERSON

50: Just Warming Up!

Jazz Village – No #

As recently documented in a Living Blues cover story (#261), the year 2019 marked the 50th anniversary of Lucky Peterson’s recording career, dating back to his debut as a five-year-old prodigy. On his latest release from the French label Jazz Village, Peterson celebrates that milestone by showcasing his wide-ranging skills as singer, organist, guitarist, and songwriter. For this project the artist wrote or co-wrote ten new tracks and shared production duties with Shawn Kellerman. Five well-conceived interpretations of cover songs augment the almost 74-minute setlist, which interweaves retrospective themes and tributes among material more focused on the here and now. 

The scat singing–accented opener, 50 Years, establishes the album’s titular concept with Peterson proclaiming, “Got in the game when I was a kid, playing the blues like my daddy did.” But the lyrics to this hard-charging shuffle look forward as well, buoyed by defiant proclamations such as, “Fifty years later, fifty years strong,” and, “You think that I am through? I’m just warming up!” Here, as on the majority of tracks, Peterson’s atmospheric organ playing and raspy yet enthused vocals are often in the foreground. While he sometimes veers toward the shouter mode, even on more subdued numbers—such as the moodily introspective Dreamin’ About You—his voice emotes powerfully.

Yet Peterson doesn’t always go it alone. Six tracks feature guest singers, each of whom collaborates with him in duet. Perhaps the strongest of such pairings occurs with the R&B stylist Tamara Tramell (who is also his wife). Their respective voices—hers supple and smooth, his rough-edged and gritty—naturally play off each other as oppositional yet complementary forces. In Don’t Want Nobody But You, they engage in a passionate lyrical dialogue that glides along a jazzy groove, gently greased by instrumental fills on saxophone and organ. That same duo makes the magic happen again on I Will Die 4 U, a mellow love song that fuses an easygoing Caribbean beat with subtle flourishes on strings and acoustic guitar. Meanwhile, on Takin’ Care of Mine Peterson does all the singing until a middle passage where the French rapper Aelpéacha takes the mic to interject some funky commentary (en français). Another hip-hop-influenced number, Kissin’ on My Lips, effectively incorporates a brief rap interlude by the New Orleans artist known as Jakk Jo. In a more traditional vein, the rocking blues Let the Good Time Party Begin is substantially juiced when Danielia Cotton adds her vocalizations to the mix (which includes a cameo on harmonica by Sugar Blue). Moreover, on the closing track, an organ-driven medley of Amazing Grace / Precious Lord, the great gospel singer Sharon Riley joins Peterson to make the final verses fervently soar heavenward.

Other highlights include the lone instrumental, Clickety Click, a supremely funky organ workout that evolves over a rolling quasi-Mardi Gras beat embellished by horns. In a bit of a surprise (given the song title), the road-warrior’s complaint The Blues Is Driving Me springs from an artfully conjured reggae rhythm, fueled by agile percussion, bass, and organ riffs. Also noteworthy, Peterson pays tribute to the “Three Kings” of blues music with selected cover songs made famous by each: Freddie King’s Pack It Up, B.B. King’s Never Make Your Move Too Soon, and Albert King’s Angel of Mercy.

In the final analysis, this album celebrates and exemplifies some of the core strengths that for 50 years have served Peterson well: his fluid musicianship, stylistic versatility, and genre-blending approach to blues, as well as his long-established knack for cool collaborations with other singers. 

    —Roger Wood


BOOKER T.

Note by Note

Edith Street Records – ESR-51182

Note by Note is a companion to Booker T. Jones’ recently published autobiography, Time Is Tight: My Life, Note by Note. It both sums up six decades of music-making and opens up new doors into the future. While the program surveys his remarkable career with remakes of iconic songs from various points in his musical journey, it also looks forward through the founding of his own record label; his work with his children, Teddy Jones (lead guitar and songwriter) and daughter Olivia Jones (executive music producer and manager); and his collaborations with a corps of hand-picked new-generation feature artists.

Since his heyday at Stax Records at the helm of Booker T. & the MGs, Jones has known how to put together a great sounding record, and these 11 tracks testify that he has not lost his touch. His emotive keyboard work, woefully underrecognized soulful vocals, and production skills are all evident on Note by Note. Jones is taking a risk with these re-recordings of classic tracks because the originals are so baked in the consciousness of listeners. There really is no room for improvement on tracks like Albert King’s Born Under a Bad Sign, Otis Redding’s These Arms of Mine, Carla Thomas’ B-A-B-Y, or the MGs’ Time Is Tight, but, especially through his distinctive instrumental sound and style, Jones seems to be taking possession of the music. He’s asserting that this is what I’ve always done, and this is what I still do. This is evident on the surging remake of Time Is Tight, which features a coda that Jones has been playing in his live show for years. Because the MGs made their mark with instrumental hits and as a backup to an incomparable array of vocalists, Stax resisted letting Jones sing. He proves the shortsightedness of that on the remake of the King track (which also features some impressive blues guitar fireworks from son Teddy), as well as on the Afro-Caribbean percussion-driven recasting of Havana Moon, a tune he had previously recorded with Santana. Willie Nelson’s Stardust album is legendary; however, Jones is not generally recognized as the producer/arranger. Here he crafts a beautiful rendition of the title track with Matt Berninger delivering a deeply resonant take of the standard. Jones goes all the way back to his gospel roots and accompanies Sharlotte Gibson on a spare, soulful Precious Lord, the same song on which, at 12 years old, he accompanied Mahalia Jackson at a neighborhood afternoon tea. Back in the day, Jones had an ear for talent, and he still has it, as evidenced by his choice to have Evvie McKinney and Joshua Ledet revisit Rufus and Carla Thomas’ Cause I Love You. Other guests include fellow studio veterans drummer Steve Ferrone and bassist Melvin Brannon and relative newcomer vocalists Ayanna Irish, Ty Taylor, and DeAndre Brackensick. Jones looks to the future with two new compositions he crafted with his son Teddy, the edgy rock of Maybe I Need Saving and EDM workout Paralyzed.

—Robert H. Cataliotti


MARK HUMMEL

Wayback Machine

Electro-Fi – Electro-Fi 3459

With each new recording many professional blues artists—especially those who have been in the game as long as NorCal East Bay fixture Mark Hummel—face the challenge of being innovative while also respecting tradition. Color too far outside the lines and it’s no longer blues (to some fans); adhere too closely to the past and it becomes an exercise in mimicry or nostalgia. It’s a difficult line to walk, but Hummel has excelled with each project.

On Wayback Machine the veteran bluesman and the Deep Basement Shakers (Aaron Hammerman on piano and Dave Eagle on percussion and washboard) mine the electric Chicago blues sound—but not the one you’re thinking of. Hummel and company have their sights set on the decades just before Chess Records made its mark, particularly during the heyday of RCA Victor’s Bluebird imprint and its stable of artists, many of whom are now considered icons: Big Bill Broonzy, John Lee Williamson, Washboard Sam, Arthur Crudup. Joining the trio are special guests that include guitarist Billy Flynn, Kid Andersen (who is on bass detail here), and most notably, Mississippi-born guitarist Joe Beard, who takes the lead on the album’s final three cuts.

Although its title and Hummel’s own comments in the liner notes suggest a release steeped in history more than it looks to the future, it’s a testament to the musicians involved that the album feels unmistakably fresh, particularly when compared to recent entries in Hummel’s discography. This outfit explores a different kind of sound.

The opener, Flim Flam, penned by R.W. Grigsby (bassist on loan from Hummel’s Golden State / Lone Star Revue), delivers a scathing critique of our current president (“sits around tweeting on his gold-plated throne / but one day, baby, he’ll be all alone”) couched in a groove that playfully references Billy Boy Arnold’s I Wish You Would. More familiar covers (Reefer Head Woman, Cut That Out) are expertly paired with hokum (Play with Your Poodle), a country rag (Rag Mama Rag), and an up-tempo Hummel original (Road Dog). Beard’s contributions feel more like bonus tracks but will nonetheless be welcomed by those who appreciate the credibility he brings as one of the genre’s elder statesmen, particularly on his moving rendition of Five Long Years.

This is quite the impressive outing for the Deep Basement Shakers, a trio who is only a few years into their initial run. Fans of early Chicago blues are going to really dig this one.

—Roger Gatchet


SUNNY WAR

Shell of a Girl

Hen House Studios – HH027

Since the release of her 2014 debut, Worthless, Sunny War has been steadily garnering attention and acclaim. Born Sydney Lyndella Ward, the singer-songwriter and guitarist has punk rock roots and spent time hoboing and performing on California’s Venice Beach. Currently based in Los Angeles, she recently released her third solo album, and Shell of a Girl contains some of her strongest work to date. 

In more ways than one, she brings to mind another veteran of the Venice Beach boardwalk: Ted Hawkins. Not quite blues, folk, or rock, her music combines qualities of each yet exists just outside of them. The album’s mood is muted throughout, with gentle instrumentation buoying War’s soothing vocals. But as her stage name hints, a turbulence roils under the bright surface of sound. Her lyrics are honest, unflinching, and blunt at times, with modern sensibilities and concerns. “Drugs are bad / Unless, of course, you get too sad,” she notes on Drugs Are Bad, a commentary on the dangers of pharmaceutical dependency. The utterly gorgeous melody of Off the Cuff belies its cutting, observational lyrics. “Since I’ve made it past 27 / There goes my ticket to rock ’n’ roll heaven,” she sings in cracked-bell tones on Rock n Roll Heaven. Her fingerstyle guitar is dexterous and beguiling, especially on the Latin-flavored title track and the pulsing Love Became Pain.

Micah Nelson returns as one of War’s backing musicians on this record, having played on her previous album With the Sun. The son of Willie and brother of Lukas, Nelson’s projects include Particle Kid and touring with Promise of the Real and Neil Young. He contributes melodic, Young-esque harmonica to Where the Lost Get Found and Got No Ride, and swirling organ to Off the Cuff. 

Full of deeply felt lyricism and exquisite musicianship that rewards with repeated listens, there’s much to discover inside Sunny War’s Shell of a Girl. 

—Melanie Young


POPA CHUBBY

It’s a Mighty Hard Road

Popa Chubby Productions – 54324

For over 30 years, Popa Chubby (born Ted Horowitz) has been churning out his own unique blend of blues and rock. Mixing crunching guitar riffs, gruff vocals, and an inimitable street smart swagger, Horowitz has carved out his own musical niche. The bravado, wry humor, and fierce guitar slinging that fans have come to love are all in full force on It’s a Mighty Hard Road.

Horowitz has always been fiercely proud of his Bronx-bred, working class roots. The title track’s blunt lyrics establish Horowitz’s hard-bitten persona, and the upbeat rocking arrangement dials up the energy level. Rock solid rhythm work by drummer Steve Holley and bassist Brett Bass keeps the music grounded. If You’re Looking for Trouble and I’m the Beast from the East continue to lay down the bad boy attitude. Because Horowitz’s vocals and guitar chops pack such a powerful punch, the tough talk never sounds like empty posturing. If You’re Looking for Trouble is one several tracks where Horowitz serves as his own rhythm section. His drumming has a clean, no-nonsense quality and his bass lines are sparse but in the groove.

As much as Horowitz likes to play the tough guy, some of the most compelling moments on It’s a Mighty Hard Road occur when he allows listeners to glimpse beneath his hardened exterior. Let Love Free the Day sports tender lyrics and a sunny, upbeat arrangement. The flowing, lyrical guitar solo is grounded by an unflappable drumbeat and an inventive bass line; once again, Horowitz excels at being his own rhythm section. The Best Is Yet to Come gives listeners another look at Horowitz’s softer side. Delicate keyboard work from Dave Keyes helps bring Horowitz’s sentimental lyrics to life. An impassioned reading of the warhorse I’d Rather Be Blind is another high point. Horowitz’s uninhibited vocals and Freddie King–inspired guitar licks remind listeners that the blues will always be his first musical love. 

A tender heart and an old soul lie beneath Horowitz’s brash demeanor. Passionate performances and a wide variety of original material make It’s a Mighty Hard Road essential listening for fans of contemporary blues.

—Jon Kleinman


VARIOUS ARTISTS

Big Band of Brothers: A Jazz Celebration of the Allman Brothers Band

New West Records – NM6474

The Allman Brothers Band had the closest affinity to jazz improvisation out of all the blues rock giants that emerged during the 1960s. Big Band of Brothers co-producer John Harvey relates in the liner notes how he first heard the ABB around the same time he heard drummer Buddy Rich’s big band live and immediately made a connection. He recruited drummer Mark Lanter to lead the band and produce the album. Pulling together a big band of solid jazz instrumentalists, they added some special guests, including vocalists Ruthie Foster and Marc Broussard, and the results are impressive. The focus here is on the ABB’s early catalog, culling material from the first five albums. Of course, so many of the compositions that the ABB jammed on featured a number of intersecting melodic lines that lead into extended solos, so they lend themselves to the skills of a group of jazz arrangers that includes Wycliffe Gordon, Shane Porter, Tom Wolfe, Mart Avant, and Jon Burr. These performances frequently maintain a distinct ABB sound thanks to brilliant slide guitar work of Jack Pearson or Matt Casey, often doubling with horn lines like the doubled guitar lines of Duane Allman and Dickey Betts. That ABB sound is also reinforced by the Hammond B-3 of Andy Nevala conjuring up Gregg Allman’s work.

Count Basie’s trio has to come to mind on the opener Statesboro Blues, and like Basie’s band, the Big Band of Brothers comes surging in with Broussard’s gritty drawl and Casey’s slide guitar in tandem with the horns. Broussard also delivers an impassioned take on Whipping Post. Foster’s talent continues to find new outlets for its expression as she swings hard with the big band on It’s Not My Cross to Bear and Don’t Keep Me Wonderin’. Pearson, who logged time in both the ABB and in Gregg’s band in the 1990s, delivers a blistering solo on Stand Back. Don’t Want You No More features a Horace Silver–inspired, hard bop sound. The band excels on classic instrumentals like Hot ’Lanta, Dreams, In Memory of Elizabeth Reed, and Les Brers in A Minor.

It’s really quite thrilling to hear these familiar melodic lines delivered with a big band punch, and the superior chops these players possess make for some dynamic, inventive soloing. Big Band of Brothers is a concept that really works and is a testament to the malleability and enduring appeal of blues-derived forms explored by the ABB.

—Robert H. Cataliotti


MATTY T WALL

Transpacific Blues, Vol. 1

Hipsterdumpster Records – HIPS-19

The opening track on Wall’s energetic album, John Lee Hooker’s Boom Boom, romps and rocks with a no-holds-barred style that permeates the rest of the album. The song rockets off from the initial interplay between lead guitar and slide guitar—a kind of slithering and seductive call and response—propelled by Wall and guest guitarist Dave Hole trading licks. There’s a ZZ Top / Texas blues flavor to this version of Hooker’s tune that exposes its raunchiness and its pure joy.

Joy is Wall’s signature, for he has fun playing the blues, and he’s aiming here to have a party, even on the slower, more somber tunes. The blazing guitarist is joined on several tracks by guests that include Hole, Eric Gales, Walter Trout, Kirk Fletcher, and Kid Ramos, and as the album title indicates, there’s a real transpacific party going on. For example, Gales struts onto the scene of Hi Heel Sneakers to keep the high-octane celebration going. Between Wall and Gales, the two guitarists play off each other’s riffs, with the instrumental bridges carrying the tune higher and higher. Toward the end of the song, Wall sings note for note with Gale’s lead, showcasing Wall’s ability to turn any tune into his own. Quicksand, which features Ramos, certainly doesn’t sink into a miasmic mess but stirs up a boiling pot of rockin’ blues that keeps the muddy waters moving and swirling. The slow-burning Stormy Monday delivers a sultry, smoky blues elevated by Wall’s brilliant, stinging and crisply Alvin Lee–like leads on the bridge. Wall and Fletcher deliver a scalding version of Booker T. Jones and William Bell’s masterpiece Born Under a Bad Sign, and the album closes with a somewhat subdued and heavy version of Robert Johnson’s Crossroads.

By the end of Transpacific Blues, Vol. 1, we’re out of breath, astonished at the level of guitar playing that’s carried us along on its cascading notes and riffs, as well as from the relentless pace of the songs. Wall has thrown us a blues party we’ll never forget and that we’ll never want to stop.

  —Henry L. Carrigan Jr.


LORENZO THOMPSON WITH JAN KORINEK AND GROOVE

I Got Your Back

Blacktown – BTR – 2018-001

Chicago-based vocalist Lorenzo Thompson doesn’t have an extensive discography—his liner notes here tell us that this is his first recorded set of original material—but his career extends back decades; among the artists he’s worked with are such legends as Dave Myers, Detroit Junior, and Pinetop Perkins. This disc was recorded in several different studios, apparently during a recent European tour.

Thompson’s vocal style blends pop-flavored deep soul melodicism with a rough-hewn, streetsy delivery; backed by multi-instrumentalist Korinek and a robust crew of European session musicians, he evokes the swinging yet hard-edged elegance of a vintage-era show lounge (the primary exception being the acoustic, country-flavored retro outing Last Train to the City). He wrote or co-wrote nine of the 12 songs here, and for the most part the lyrics reflect that same meld of toughness and sophistication. If few new musical trails are blazed, Thompson and the band nonetheless dig into familiar yet still rich territory with soulful élan.

Perhaps the most satisfying element of this set is the apparent determination of all concerned to avoid overstatement—unlike too many modern-day blues aggregations, Thompson, Korinek, and their compatriots remember that the spaces between notes can tell stories as eloquently as the notes themselves, and that whispers and murmurs can be more intense—and a lot sexier—than screams. Although specific credits aren’t given, it’s obvious that Korinek—or someone—has listened long and hard to the work of such masterful arrangers and bandleaders as James Bolden, Joe Scott, and King Curtis; this is a “grown folks’ party” of the old school, exuberant and sometimes raw, but laced with tough, funky eloquence and wit.  

—David Whiteis

Living Blues Radio Report February 2020


  1. Tinsley Ellis,  Ice Cream in Hell, Alligator
  2. Phantom Blues Band,  Still Cookin’, VizzTone
  3. Jimmy Johnson,  Every Day of Your Life, Delmark
  4. Whitney Shay,  Stand Up!, Ruf
  5. Frank Bey,  All My Dues Are Paid, NOLA Blue
  6. Betty Fox Band,  Peace In Pieces, Foxy Cavanagh
  7. Mark Hummel,  Wayback Machine, Electro-Fi
  8. John Blues Boyd,  “What My Eyes Have Seen…”, Gulf Coast
  9. Tas Cru,  Drive On, Subcat
  10. Albert Cummings,  Believe, Provogue
  11. Thorbjorn Risager & Black Tornado,  Come On In, Ruf
  12. Sugar Blue,  Colors, Beeble Music
  13. Chris Shutters,  Good Gone Bad, Third Street Cigar
  14. Johnny Burgin,  Live, Delmark
  15. Richard Ray Farrell,  Three Pints of Gin, Blue Beet
  16. Dave Specter,  Blues…from the Inside Out, Delmark
  17. The Jimmys,  Gotta Have It, Brown Cow
  18. Gary Moore,  Live From London, Provogue
  19. 11 Guys Quartet,  Small Blues and Grooves, VizzTone
  20. Cindy Cashdollar,  Waltz for Abilene, Silver Shot
  21. Mary Jo Curry Band,  Front Porch, MJC
  22. Sonny Landreth,  Blacktop Run, Mascot
  23. Forrest McDonald,  Blues in a Bucket, World Talent
  24. Robert Cray Band,  That’s What I Heard, Nozzle/Thirty Tigers
  25. Harper and Midwest Kind,  Rise Up, Access

Top 50 Blues Albums for 2018

BLUES IS ALIVE album cover


  1. Buddy Guy, The Blues Is Alive and Well, Silvertone/RCA
  2. Nick Moss Band, The High Cost of Low Living, Alligator
  3. Marcia Ball, Shine Bright, Alligator
  4. Shemekia Copeland, America’s Child, Alligator
  5. Curtis Salgado & Alan Hager, Rough Cut, Alligator
  6. Victor Wainwright, Victor Wainwright and the Train, Ruf
  7. Sue Foley, The Ice Queen, Stony Plain
  8. Bernard Allison, Let It Go, Ruf
  9. Janiva Magness, Love Is an Army, Blue Élan
  10. Tinsley Ellis, Winning Hand, Alligator
  11. Elvin Bishop’s Big Fun Trio, Something Smells Funky ’Round Here, Alligator
  12. Danielle Nicole, Cry No More, Concord
  13. Mud Morganfield, They Call Me Mud, Severn
  14. Kid Ramos, Old School, Rip Cat
  15. Rockwell Avenue Blues Band, Back to Chicago, Delmark
  16. Anthony Geraci, Why Did You Have to Go, Shining Stone
  17. Bob Corritore & Friends, Don’t Let the Devil Ride, SWMAF/VizzTone
  18. James Harman, fineprint, Electro-Fi
  19. Boz Scaggs, Out of the Blues, Concord
  20. Mike Zito, First Class Life, Ruf
  21. John Mayall, Three for the Road, Forty Below
  22. Frank Bey, Back in Business, Nola Blue
  23. Johnny Tucker, Seven Day Blues, Highjohn
  24. Lindsay Beaver, Tough As Love, Alligator
  25. Joe Louis Walker, Bruce Katz and Giles Robson, Journeys to the Heart of the Blues, Alligator
  26. Lurrie Bell & The Bell Dynasty, Tribute to Carey Bell, Delmark
  27. Colin James, Miles to Go, Stony Plain
  28. Various Artists, Chicago Plays the Stones, Raisin’ Music
  29. Mark Hummel, Harpbreaker, Electro-Fi
  30. Tom Hambridge, The NOLA Sessions, Superstar
  31. Rory Block, A Woman’s Soul: Tribute to Bessie Smith, Stony Plain
  32. Trudy Lynn, Blues Keep Knockin’, Connor Ray
  33. Teresa James & The Rhythm Tramps, Here in Babylon, Jesi-Lu
  34. Billy F Gibbons, The Big Bad Blues, Concord
  35. Fiona Boyes, Voodoo in the Shadows, Reference Recordings
  36. Reverend Raven & The Chain Smokin’ Altar Boys, My Life, Nevermore
  37. Ben Harper and Charlie Musselwhite, No Mercy in This Land, ANTI-
  38. Kenny “Blues Boss” Wayne, Inspired By the Blues, IDLA/Stony Plain
  39. Various Artists, Tribute: Delmark’s 65th Anniversary, Delmark
  40. Big Harp George, Uptown Cool, Blues Mountain
  41. Eugene Hideaway Bridges, Live in Tallahassee, Armadillo
  42. JP Soars, Southbound I-95, Soars High
  43. Bruce Katz, Get Your Groove!, American Showplace
  44. Samantha Fish, Belle of the West, Ruf
  45. Deb Ryder, Enjoy the Ride, VizzTone
  46. Vanessa Collier, Honey Up, Phenix Fire
  47. Damon Fowler, The Whiskey Bayou Session, Whiskey Bayou
  48. Breezy Rodio, Sometimes the Blues Got Me, Delmark
  49. Joyann Parker, Hard to Love, Hopeless Romantics
  50. Kirk Fletcher, Hold On, KF

Living Blues Radio Chart November 2018

walker katz robson


  1. Walker/Katz/Robson,  Journeys to the Heart of the Blues, Alligator
  2. Lindsay Beaver,  Tough As Love, Alligator
  3. Fiona Boyes,  Voodoo in the Shadows, Reference Recordings
  4. Kenny “Blues Boss” Wayne,  Inspired By the Blues, IDLA/Stony Plain
  5. Paul Oscher,  Cool Cat, Blues Fidelity
  6. Kirk Fletcher,  Hold On, KF
  7. Colin James,  Miles to Go, Stony Plain
  8. Anthony Geraci,  Why Did You Have to Go, Shining Stone
  9. Teeny Tucker,  Put on Your Red Dress Baby, TeBo
  10. Billy F. Gibbons,  The Big Bad Blues, Concord
  11. Dave Keller,  Every Soul’s a Star, Catfood
  12. Doug Deming & The Jewel Tones,  Complicated Mess, EllerSoul
  13. Mark Hummel,  Harpbreaker, Electro-Fi
  14. Shemekia Copeland,  America’s Child, Alligator
  15. Buddy Guy, The Blues Is Alive and Well, Silvertone/RCA
  16. Reverend Peyton’s Big Damn Band,  Poor Until Payday, Thirty Tigers
  17. Frank Bey,  Back in Business, NOLA Blue
  18. Kevin Burt,  Heartland & Soul, Little Village
  19. Various Artists,  Chicago Plays the Stones, Raisin’ Music
  20. Catfish Keith,  Reefer Hound: Viper Songs Revisited, Fish Tail
  21. Rod Piazza,  His Instrumentals, Rip Cat
  22. Sean Chambers,  Welcome to My Blues, American Showplace
  23. Bryan Lee,  Sanctuary, Earrelevant
  24. Ms. Zeno The Mojo Queen,  Back in Love, Blue Lotus
  25. Knickerbocker All-Stars,  Love Makes a Woman, JP Cadillac

Living Blues #258 Top 10 Reviews

KIRK FLETCHERKirk Fletcher_CD Cover Hold On

Hold On

Elaysia – KF 270137

Kirk Fletcher has made a personal statement on his newest album, simply titled Hold On. In what he says feels like his first solo record, the eight tracks represent his first attempt at writing all-original music, and, in my opinion, he succeeds well beyond the average, even if the album is relatively short, clocking in at only 48 minutes.

The disc opens with a gargling organ and a snappy Albert Collins–style Tele sound on Two Steps Forward. The song has a funky modulation that occurs right after the first verse, and a stinging Stevie Ray Vaughan–flavored guitar pushes forward. Mahalia Barnes provides gritty vocals as a supporting cast member, while Kirk fires ripping, Hendrixian wah-wah fuzz licks that sound delicious. Somewhere before the tune is over, he actually quotes the Layla melody briefly—a nice treat tucked in there for those who habitually listen closely and scrutinize every note in a gunslinger’s guitar solo.

You Need Me has a funky, churchy feel that will definitely make your body move in the pews. Although Kirk is a preacher whose sermon seems to be a short message delivered in under four minutes (with only one verse and chorus), he leaves the remainder of the tune to indulge in swapped guitar licks that vacillate between a straight sound and clean wah-wah licks, while a third guitar part serves as the rhythm guitar that glues the other two together.

Sad Sad Day is anything but sad; quite the opposite—it’s a highly energized New Orleans second line boogie, with a Chicago blues riff that drives the tune in a patented Jimmy Reed–meets–Hound Dog Taylor mash-up. There’s a ton of fun listening to this one—it even has no bass, just a nasty guitar shuffle and stinging leads with New Orleans–style drums and dirty boogie-woogie piano. Fletcher’s lead solo is so raw I can’t get enough. I absolutely love this track for its unabashed wickedness, and I’d sell pop bottles to see this one performed live!

Things immediately get turned down to a slow boil on The Answer when Fletcher sings in an Albert King–style falsetto, and plays such a tender guitar solo that demonstrates his gentle touch and gorgeous tone. “I wish I had a mother, I wish I had a wife, I work so hard to make it through this life . . . what can it be?” he asks, as he searches the whole world for the answer. It’s a beautifully poignant tune that will move you. The tone on his Telecaster solo is flat-out ripping, and he sounds like he is testifying—one of the best guitar lectures anyone could have ever laid down on wax.

Time’s Ticking is an all-out rocker that has Matt Brown’s drums marching in half step as he marks the time, which does, in fact, slowly tick away as Kirk delivers yet another aural assault. This dude is realty out to do some damage—this guitar solo may be even more blistering than the last one!

Dupree has a really catchy melody—it’s a spunky-funky instrumental with an infectious groove and percolating romp that eventually gives way to a sassy New Orleans organ solo that’ll make you yell, “hey pocky way!” Kirk’s elegant solo just sounds like he’s having a ball casually tossing off the numerous syncopated riffs over this Crusaders-flavored treat that ends in a funky clavinet cascade. This song is clearly dedicated to guitarist Cornell Dupree in a long-forgotten but legendary East Coast jazz-funk band called Stuff. Most people might not remember that group, but they were insanely groovalicious. Kirk does a fabulous job of tapping into Cornell and Eric Gale throughout this track as well as the entire album.

Gotta Right has so many of my favorite elements: minor blues shuffle in the tempo and style of Albert King’s I Wanna Get Funky. Oh my goodness, this Fletcher tune is a barn burner—this man knows how to build a house and tear it down like nobody’s business. The closer, Hold On, is a beautiful soul ballad with lovely background female harmonies by Jade McCrea—a torch song for sure. And yet again, Fletcher builds a slow, simmering solo up to a burning flame before dousing it out with a last vocal phrase.

I can’t remember the last time I reviewed a disc that blew me away with every single track, having absolutely no “filler” material detected on either end. This is one of those times. I reviewed a previous album by this artist and was impressed, but this one is head and shoulders above anything else I have heard from Fletcher.

Engineers Nick Dover and Alan Hertz deserve a shout-out for doing an incredible job of capturing superb sonics on this disc. Throughout the entirety of Hold On, Kirk Fletcher is shredding somethin’ awful on this album—he’s a bad, baad boy.

—Wayne Goins


ERIC BIBB1402-Cover

Global Griot

Stony Plain Records – SPCD 1402

It would be no exaggeration to call Eric Bibb one of the most relevant and significant performers in the blues genre today. His most recent album, the Grammy-nominated Migration Blues, was a poignant, powerful testament to roots and blues as a vibrant contemporary music with a significant message and artistic prowess. As highlighted in the recent issue of LB, the blues today has something to say, now more than ever, and the indomitable Bibb is one of the songwriters on the forefront of the revival of blues as a form of sociopolitical, philosophical thematic. As a musical universalist, his cross-cultural musical adventures and enlightened humanistic, globalist outlook embodies the old adage “music is a unifying force.” As he says in his lyrics, “. . . hoisting the banner of humanity / hoisting the banner of love.” He tears down walls—of race, ethnicity, religion and national boundaries, in direct resistance to those who divide.

Global Griot is a brilliant double album, a beautiful, seamless blend of blues, folk and world music that again connects Bibb with his Malian friend Habib Koité, with whom he recorded Brothers in Bamako. They are joined by kora player Solo Cissokho and bluesman Harrison Kennedy on this journey about the griots, which Bibb aptly describes: “Connecting to the West African tradition of storytelling and oral history through music, this album features brothers and sisters from around the globe—serving the listeners a tasty gumbo, spiced with hope for these challenging times.” This collaboration works as the musicians fit together wonderfully, creating a musically perfect amalgam playing “. . . sweet songs of mercy where the cornerstone of the temple be love.”

The album is a balance of socio-critical songs, juxtaposed against those of genuine hope for an enlightened humanity. The potent Brazos River Blues is a stunning deep blues song about the racial violence, exploitation and lynching in Brazos County, Texas: “You ought to’ve been here in 1904 / you can find a dead body in every row / You ought to’ve been here in 1910 / They drive the women just like the men.” The socio-critical We Don’t Care confronts greed, apathy and self-serving attitudes of privilege: “The gap is getting wider between the rich and the poor / we got everything we need but we still want more / We don’t care.” They cover Big Bill Broonzy’s famous Black, Brown and White. Likewise, Race and Equality provides guidance of how to deal this hard issue. What’s He Gonna Say Today puts Trump in his place. Whenever the Africans sing, a spurt of joy pervades. By the time you get to CD 2 everything else in life fades into the background, as these songs engulf you in the thrill of it all.

The spirit of this album is best summarized in Human River: “I was born to sing the songs of my people / travel the world around / Destined to see myself in everyone, black, or white or yellow or brown / born to spread the message of love.” Bibb uplifts, challenges, evokes thought and holds on to higher ideals, singing embracing, idealistic, yet poignant songs in a “needed time.” Global Griot is at once moving and emancipatory, just what this mean old world needs told today: “You got a story, I got mine / We put them together made them rhyme / All because I got a friend in you / Let us finally agree that everyone is a child of God / respected equally . . .” All that in a mesmerizing musical groove, passionate, funky, soulful . . . and brave. 

A true musical masterpiece.

—Frank Matheis


KENNY “BLUES BOSS” WAYNEKenny Wayne-Inspired by the Blues 1401-Cover

Inspired by the Blues

Stony Plain – SPCD 1401

The contemporary blues recording scene is highly guitar-centric, so it is a pleasure to have a keyboard man like Kenny “Blues Boss” Wayne assert himself and step to the foreground with a series of albums from Stony Plain Records. Inspired by the Blues, his fourth offering from the label, finds him excelling as a composer of original material and paying homage to keyboard kings from the past that inspired him.

Harmonica great Billy Branch lends a hand on two tracks, the slow-rolling, autobiographical boogie I Knew I’d Be Playing the Blues and That Girl Needs Help with its Muddy Waters–evoking groove. They just don’t make harmonica players like Branch anymore, and his interplay with Wayne elevates both these tracks. That Raggedy Shack brings to mind Louis Jordan’s ebullient jump blues, providing an opportunity for saxophonist Dave Babcock to stretch out. Wayne highlights his skills on organ and delivers a funky Billy Preston–style take on How ’Bout That, an American Dream narrative salute to a grandfather who rose up from slavery. Jimmy and Johnny is a jumping ballad that tells the tale of a love triangle that allows Wayne to showcase his Chicago blues piano chops and gives a nod to Floyd Dixon. Wayne heads down to New Orleans and delivers the Huey “Piano” Smith–derived Start Rockin’.

The pianist and singer demonstrates his affinity for Ray Charles with the bouncy original I Like That Woman and a live version of Georgia on My Mind that was recorded with a local band when he was on tour in Mexico, a performance that highlights how emotive he can be as a singer. His other direct homage is the original Mr. Blueberry Hill that pays tribute to Fats Domino by employing the hallmarks of his classic Imperial hits. One of the most outstanding tracks on the album is the instrumental Lake Country Boogie, with its wailing saxophone and stunning boogie runs on the piano riding on top of a propulsive groove from bassist Russell Jackson and drummer Joey DiMarco—blues piano at its most inspiring!

—Robert H. Cataliotti


ROBERT KIMBROUGH SR.

I Been Fixed

ReverbUnit – No #

Robert Kimbrough’s father was the fabled northern Mississippi guitarist/vocalist David “Junior” Kimbrough. That’s a daunting legacy to live up to, but he has dedicated himself to carrying on the great man’s legacy.

Kimbrough insists that the sound he purveys is not, as common opinion would have it, “Hill Country blues,” but rather “cotton patch soul blues”—the difference, apparently, being in the nature of the rhythmic drive. Whatever one might call it, though, his music roils with intensity, and it’s often charged with the same hypnotic “trance blues” power that his father and R.L. Burnside made famous. He’s a gifted storyteller, juxtaposing spoken word narrations with sung verses to limn tales drawn from hardscrabble everyday northern Mississippi life. Both he and “Janky,” a Dallas-based singer-songwriter also listed as co-producer, are credited on guitars; it’s unclear exactly who’s playing what, but my guess is that Janky takes most of the leads. Either way, the two achieve a deep, effortless synergy, the lead patterns weaving through the propulsive rhythmic strumming and then erupting into hot-toned solos.

Sometimes, as in Laugh at Me, an anguished ode to his father, Kimbrough summons a harrowing emotional intensity; elsewhere (Get Yo Woman, Blues Show, the hoodoo-drenched title tune), he adopts a more ironic tone, although one senses a seriousness at his core even when he’s at his most irreverent and ribald. In several places, Kimbrough updates his sound: the ballad That’s Why I Still Love You incorporates rhythmic and melodic ideas drawn from modern blues rock and power pop; In Remembrance of Momma is an acoustic outing with a strong pop folk flavor that closes the set out on an appropriately thoughtful yet hopeful note. 

—David Whiteis


CANDI STATON

Unstoppable

Beracah Records – BRI-2031

Over the course of her 50-year career, singer Candi Staton has found success in southern soul, disco and gospel. Her warm, slightly husky tone and her high-spirited delivery remain strong and vital on Unstoppable on a program that combines tunes that express an assured self-definition with songs that speak out with a determined social consciousness. 

The program features six Staton originals. Confidence is a surging, horn-driven R&B number that opens the set and is certainly in tune with the times with its declaration of female empowerment. Love Is You is one of the set’s highlights with its punchy groove and the warm poignancy of her vocals. She serves up a couple of deep, percolating funk outings with It Ain’t Over and The Prize Is Not Worth the Pain. Staton’s forays into politically aware compositions take two divergent musical paths. Revolution of Change is a slow ballad featuring a tremolo guitar part that brings the late Curtis Mayfield to mind, and Stand Up is a funky anthem that recalls the Staple Singers.

Staton reaches back to her R&B roots with two covers. Norma Jenkins’ 1976 hit I Fooled You, Didn’t I is soulful declaration of female independence. When she was first crossing over from gospel to R&B in the late 1960s, Tyrone Davis was one of her mentors, and his classic Can I Change My Mind? is a perfect vehicle for Staton’s uplifting, emotive delivery. The other two cover tunes come from unexpected sources and provide opportunities for Staton to reinforce the album’s response to the current political environment and to push her creative envelope. Patti Smith’s People Have the Power is locked into a funky groove, and Staton’s vocals exude determination and conviction. Staton achieves one of the album’s high points with a powerful, equal parts folk rock and gospel rendition of Nick Lowe’s (What’s So Funny ’Bout) Peace Love & Understanding. Five decades on, Candi Staton provides soulful testimony that genuinely is Unstoppable.

—Robert H. Cataliotti


MABLE HILLERY + JOHNNY SHINESAMP-001_LP_Cover_Art copy

Hotter Than a Bulldog Spitting in a Polecat’s Eye

Americana Music Productions – AMP 001 (LP)

Mable Hillery was born (in 1929) and raised in a rural area of western Georgia, where she was exposed to the music of the church and the cotton fields. After moving to the coastal town of Brunswick, Georgia, in 1960, she came to the attention of folklorist Alan Lomax, through whom she was introduced to and became a member of the Georgia Sea Island Singers and thereby gained entrée to the concert stages, coffee houses and colleges of the blues “revival” circuit. By 1966, she had become involved in the Southern Folk Cultural Revival Project (SFCRP) and focused mainly on educational aspects of the civil rights movement. Although her involvement with music continued and brought her into contact with many of the music’s greats, her only album was the politically themed It’s So Hard to Be a Nigger, which she recorded for the British XTRA imprint while on tour of the UK in 1967.

Sometime in the early 1970s, Hillery met up with legendary guitarist Johnny Shines, who by that time had relocated from Chicago to Tuscaloosa, Alabama, and also had become involved with the SFCRP. After teaming with Hillery at concert gigs in Atlanta, Dallas and New York City, Shines lobbied successfully to get her on the bill for the fourth annual Miami Blues Festival in April of 1975 (the album’s title is Hillery’s comment on Miami weather), which also featured Buddy Guy, Junior Wells, Robert Lockwood Jr., Son Seals and Koko Taylor in its star-studded lineup. This album, AMP’s first, captures Hillery’s April 11 set as recorded from the festival’s soundboard. Accompanied by Shines playing amplified but without slide, she sticks to traditional blues fare in the form of Bring It on Home, Young Woman’s Blues, Four Day Creep, You’ve Got to Love Him with a Feeling (via Wells?), Bumble Bee Blues, Come Back Baby and the stunning version of Bessie Smith’s Backwater Blues that closes her set. Thanks both to Shines’ sympathetic backing and Hillery’s expressive and dynamic vocals, which show influence from contemporary blues and soul women, as well as from such forebears as Smith, Ida Cox and Memphis Minnie, these familiar songs consistently find new life and are anything but routine.

Sadly, Hillery died of a heart attack barely a year after this performance, at age 46. Thankfully, AMP has done a top-notch job on its maiden release, from the crystal clear sound of the thick slab of 180 gram vinyl to the extensive liner notes and 28-page booklet. Be warned, though—this is a limited edition of 250 copies, so if you want to get one, you better do it now.

—Jim DeKoster


LINDSAY BEAVER

Tough as Love

Alligator Records – ALCD 4986

Thirty-three-year-old Canadian Lindsay Beaver has struck pay dirt with her first release under her own name. Beaver, a jazz-trained drummer with a classically trained voice, excels in exploring early R&B, blues and old school rock ’n’ roll.

A career that has spanned 15 years with various bands was inspired by her exposure to Jimi Hendrix and Billie Holiday as a teenager, while Earl Palmer is her biggest drumming influence.

This Alligator release, Tough as Love, was recorded in Beaver’s current home city of Austin. It contains seven originals and shows off the excellent work of her touring band, guitarist Brad Stivers and bassist Josh Williams. The clarity of Stivers’ notes and his ability to handle all her changes stand out. 

 Too Cold to Cry has a classic sound. It’s a goodbye tale of Beaver’s tossing out a man who’s “too cold to cry.” His belongings are now outside her door. “That old bass you played doesn’t live here anymore,” she sings. Marcia Ball on piano is a welcome addition. 

Sax Gordon adds pizzazz on What a Fool You’ve Been, while Dennis Gruenling sits in for Slim Harpo on the latter’s I Got Love if You Want It. “Quit teasin’ me baby. I’ll be your lover girl,” says Beaver.

Two blues songs are especially effective. You Hurt Me, conjuring Amy Winehouse, is a plea from a woman who’s begging a man to come back. “If you don’t soon return you’re gonna drive me to my grave.”

Stivers turns in an anthemic slow blues on Angela Strehli’s Lost Cause, arousing memories of Luther Allison. 

Matt Farrell on rockabilly piano joins Beaver on the rousing Oh Yeah with Eve Monsees in the mix, and Laura Chavez cuts loose on the rocker Mean to Me where Beaver indicates she’s “tired of bein’ used.”

Rejecting mambo and cha-cha in the ’50s-style Let’s Rock by Art Neville, Beaver shouts, “When you’re rock ’n’ rollin’ everything’s gonna feel real good.” She’ll Be Gone, enjoying some deep bass guitar à la Peter Gunn, is a radio-ready smash.

Beaver’s voice satisfies in front of the steady pulse of her drumming.

—Robert Feuer


MARK HUMMELHarpbreaker_cvr

Harpbreaker

Electro-Fi – Electro-Fi 3456

Few would dare argue with the assertion that Mark Hummel is among the most talented—and consistently innovative—blues harmonica players to follow in the footsteps of the giants of the postwar era. Equally adept at both acoustic and amplified modes of performance, Hummel, who has been playing professionally since the early 1970s, has amassed a mile-long discography that includes over 20 albums as a bandleader and numerous live anthologies. His Blues Harmonica Blowout tours have become the catalyst for regional spinoffs around the country, and he was nominated for a Grammy in 2013 for Remembering Little Walter. 

If all-instrumental, guitar-driven blues albums are rare, their harp-centric equivalents are even more so. Bob Corritore’s Taboo, released on Delta Groove in 2014, is a rare exception. Perhaps less familiar to blues fans stateside, Fabrizio Poggi’s Harpway 61 (2012) and Finnish harpist Helge Tallqvist’s In Footsteps (2015) are others.

With Harpbreaker, Hummel firmly stakes his claim on this under-populated territory. His own liner notes offer personal anecdotes that cut across his long career and illuminate his reasons for including some of the 13 tracks in this collection. One of the most striking is Cristo Redentor, the Duke Pearson–penned gospel-jazz instrumental that most blues fans associate with Charlie Musselwhite, who has made it a staple of his live shows for decades. Hummel’s thoughtful (and compared to Musselwhite’s version, slightly more aggressive) interpretation alternates between chromatic and diatonic harmonicas, with Kid Andersen striking an atmospheric tone with his subtle guitar work.

Little Walter deeply influenced Hummel in his formative years as a young player, as can be heard on Walter’s own Crazy Legs and other Walter-inspired tunes, from Evans Shuffle to Harpoventilatin’. The jazz numbers Señor Blues and Glide On, and a sweet, somewhat melancholic arrangement of See See Rider, diversify the set. Hummel is known for assembling top-notch studio and touring bands, and the list of musicians backing him here—Little Charlie Baty, Anson Funderburgh, Rusty Zinn, Billy Flynn, June Core and R.W. Grigsby, to name a few—is impressive. 

With only five songs previously released between 2004 and 2016, even the diehard fans who own Hummel’s more recent recordings will have plenty of new material to enjoy with Harpbreaker.

—Roger Gatchet


KEVIN BURTKevin Burt Cover shot

Heartland & Soul

Little Village Foundation—LVF 1025

Kevin Burt is a smooth singer from Iowa, which is not a place known for its blues. Still, Burt came, he saw and he conquered—he won the hearts of the crowd when he entered the Blues Foundation’s 34th International Blues Challenge at the Orpheum Theatre and won in multiple categories of piano, guitar, vocals and harmonica. His backing band sounds fantastic and makes Heartland & Soul a hearty and soulful effort indeed.

Day Day has a medium-up-tempo funk groove, which features some pretty nifty blues harp licks from Kevin, establishing his harmonica credentials right off the bat. Come See About Me has an R&B groove that could have fit comfortably in any of the Stax recordings. It has nice female backing vocals by Lisa Leuschner Andersen. The band is tight and so are the lyrics. Burt has a natural way of phrasing that is pleasing to the ears, and he creates the feel of someone who is performing live instead of in a recording studio. By the way, Burt’s bassist on the album, Jerry Jemmott, is an old-school veteran electric bassist who played with the likes of Ray Charles, B.B. King, Chuck Berry, Aretha Franklin, et al., and was a major influence on none other than the legendary jazz bass virtuoso Jaco Pastorius. Is there any wonder why this album sounds so great? (See this issue’s “Artist to Artist” column.)

Thank You is nicely flavored with the aroma of Booker T. and the M.G.’s, especially since it’s wrapped in that warm Hammond B3 blanket (Jim Pugh sounds wonderful here with his understated chords). This is one of the best tunes on the disc—it’s smooth and easy listening, but with a strong message of love to his family elders. Kevin’s lyrics are poignant, and especially relevant.

In the up-tempo, minor key workout Real Love, Burt’s solo reminds one of Lee Oskar from War, especially toward the end when he really lets it fly and rips it up. His singing reminds one of Gil Scott-Heron, although his voice doesn’t have as much of the baritone bottom. Still, Burt sings with the kind of confidence and passion that gets the message across comfortably.

Burt gives the Beatles classic Eleanor Rigby a fresh coat of paint—unlike any version I have heard. He serves up a downright funky dish here, but it feels effortless until you wonder why this approach hadn’t been done before. One can see this stylistic approach being a showstopper that wins any contest, hands down. His raunchy rendition reminds me of the way Bill Withers would attack a song and make it his own. 

While Makin’ Me Feel is sexy slow burner, I’ve Been Watching You has a pretty funky wah-wah based clavinet part that you really ought to hear—it is reminiscent of the one Billy Preston plays on his 1971 hit Outa-Space when he was on the A&M label. I Don’t Want to See You No More finds Burt playing acoustic solo guitar on this minor blues tune, written about his woman leaving him for no apparent reason, and one can imagine this is probably another major centerpiece during his live show. The man really knows how to write and deliver a torch song. 

Never is a smoldering, slow 6/8 blues—imagine being at a late-night supper club listening to Kevin deliver this love song to you live. This piece has more than a few tasty blues guitar licks from Kid Andersen, and offers an exceptional vocal performance that proves Burt can deliver a low-down blues with the best of ’em. It’s one the best vocal highlights of the disc. 

On Your Smile, the touching tribute dedicated his daughter, the melody and chorus are both extremely catchy. It’s a well-crafted piece that might just bring a tear to your eye if you’re not careful. Kevin is singing his heart out on this one, and the sincerity of the lyrics comes shining through in every measure. Wake Up, Baby is an up-tempo shuffle that is the smart way to close this album—Kevin’s Iowa roots seem to shift to deep-southern roots as he chugs and strums this shuffle with energy.

Burt is a serious songwriter who knows how to craft music to fit his personality, and no one delivers this brand of music better than he does. After listening to Heartland & Soul, one should have no problem seeing why he took all the top honors at the blues competition—this guy is a real winner.

—Wayne Goins


JOE LOUIS WALKER, BRUCE KATZ, GILES ROBSON

 Journeys to the Heart of the Blues 

Alligator – ALCD 4987

Labors of love risk being terrific concepts that fail in execution. Say a British blues harmonica ace, a renowned Bay Area blues guitarist-singer and a Catskills pianist team up to celebrate blues of the 1930s–50s. When they’ve recorded a dozen tunes they name their album Journeys to the Heart of the Blues, a title and concept that could tag a collection that takes itself too seriously.

  Fortunately, this album doesn’t. Walker, Robson and Katz use vintage blues songs as inspiration, not musical scores. Their performances are loose interpretations and have the “live” feel of master musicians at play. Given the instrumentation, it’s no surprise much of their material comes from the artists of the so-called Bluebird beat era. Big Maceo Merriweather’s Poor Kelly Blues is a standout performance, Katz’s piano and Robson’s harp driving Walker’s powerful singing of a tale of remorseless murder. Maceo is also the source of the rollicking Chicago Breakdown, essentially a showcase for Katz’s boogie piano. No one grandstands, yet everyone gets to have his say. These guys seem to genuinely enjoy one another’s musical company. 

  While there’s a breezy, near throwaway quality on occasion (Washboard Sam’s You Got to Run Me Down recorded by Jazz Gillum), there are also moments of high drama: their interpretation of Blind Willie McTell’s Murderer’s Home takes the song deep into Muddy Waters–Otis Rush territory, a sense of impending doom pulsing from the interplay of Robson’s harmonica, Katz’s piano and Walker’s guitar and compelling confessional vocals. Walker mainly plays acoustic guitar (albeit with pickup and some reverb) throughout, but he is an electric player at heart, which is no indictment, just an observation. He plays some fine single line leads and Muddy-inspired slide (Son Bonds’ Hard Pill to Swallow essentially becomes an homage to Muddy). Robson is much indebted to Sonny Boy Williamson II, and Katz is just a rock-solid supportive presence everywhere on piano. 

  Joyfully underproduced, Journeys sounds like a really good rehearsal tape, not a record. Wish that the same could be said of more contemporary blues albums! Walker, Katz and Robson effortlessly show their depth both as players and lovers of blues, choosing to reinvent songs that aren’t obvious choices to cover. Here’s hoping their exploration and collaboration continues and may inspire others to go deep, not wide. 

—Mark Humphrey

Living Blues #254 Top 10 Reviews

JOHNNY TUCKERTucker_Photo_1

Seven Day Blues

High John – 007

Johnny Tucker has been a fixture on the Los Angeles blues scene since he arrived there in 1964, most notably playing the drums behind Johnny Otis and Phillip Walker, with whom he recorded for Playboy, HighTone and Black Top. In 1997 Tucker and his longtime section mate, bassist James “Broadway” Thomas, cut a CD titled Stranded for HMG, and a previous High John disc, Why You Lookin’ At Me?, came out in 2002.

For Tucker’s second outing for his label, High John’s Bob Auerbach brought in guitarist Big Jon Atkinson to serve as producer and engineer. In contrast to the horn-driven, Texas-to-California sound of its predecessor, Atkinson and Tucker chose to return to the classic Chicago ensemble blues circa 1960, even to the extent of employing vintage recording equipment and techniques. The result finds Tucker and his mates laying down groove after groove with a sound somewhere between Howlin’ Wolf (with Atkinson borrowing the signature guitar figure of Wolf’s Howlin’ for My Darlin’ on the opening Talkin’ ’Bout You Baby) and Little Walter (with echoes of Walter’s Blue and Lonesome on the closing You Can Leave My House). These, like all of the disc’s 15 cuts, are Tucker originals, and there’s not a weak one in the lot. Tucker’s gritty, yet flexible, vocals are up front in the mix where they belong, and the band—with Atkinson joined by Scot Smart on guitar or bass, Troy Sandow on harmonica or bass and Malachi Johnson or Marty Dodson on drums (with guest spots for Bob Corritore’s harp, Kid Ramos’ guitar and Bob Welch’s organ)—is fully at ease in the Windy City idiom.

Although unapologetically retro in its approach, this is a set that in no way sounds dated, and it marks a high point in Tucker’s career that should be kept in mind when award season next rolls around.

—Jim DeKoster


BETTYE LAVETTEBettye Lavette - THC - FINAL COVER CMYK

Things Have Changed

Verve – No #

Bettye LaVette isn’t just one of the finest soul singers of our time—she’s also one of the great modern stylists, with an uncanny ability to imbue any song she sings with deep conviction and lived-in truth. The Michigan native’s latest release finds her turning to the Bob Dylan songbook, and it’s a sublime marriage of performer and material. LaVette’s voice and Dylan’s words both contain multitudes, and on Things Have Changed she reveals fresh colors and new meanings in her stunning interpretations of his songs.

This isn’t the first time LaVette has recorded Dylan—fine versions of Most of the Time, Everything Is Broken and Unbelievable have appeared on previous compilations and studio albums—but this is her first collection of songs penned by a single songwriter. Produced by Steve Jordan, who also plays drums and percussion, the excellent backing ensemble features Dylan band veteran and multi-instrumentalist Larry Campbell, keyboardist Leon Pendarvis and bassist Pino Palladino.

Never one to reverently cover, LaVette rearranges and changes each of the 12 tracks to suit her own tastes. It Ain’t Me Babe’s protestations are no longer daringly playful folk, but earnest, firm Muscle Shoals–style soul; the flirtatious longing of Mama, You Been on My Mind becomes a tender, heartbreaking ode to a departed mother. Political World’s hard-driving beat melts into a murky, Meters-esque funk, punctuated by brief, stinging solos from guitarist Keith Richards. A Crescent City vibe also filters through What Was It You Wanted (both it and Political World are taken from Dylan’s New Orleans–recorded album Oh Mercy) with Trombone Shorty’s amber-toned horn trading places with Dylan’s hazy harmonica. Set against atmospheric strings and organ, Ain’t Talkin’ is even more eerie and dystopian than the original. 

LaVette’s voice is an exposed nerve, a pure vein of raw sound, and she mines every last ounce of feeling from each syllable. She does this best on the ballads Don’t Fall Apart on Me Tonight and Emotionally Yours, where her ragged, tender whispers and wails render them into frankly sensual pleas of love and desire. 

If Things Have Changed for Bettye LaVette it’s only for the better, as she’s made her most masterful, soul-searing album yet. 

—Melanie Young


VANCE KELLY & HIS BACKSTREET BLUES BAND

How Can I Miss You, When You Won’t Leave

Wolf – 120.838

Vance Kelly was born into the blues in 1954 in a basement on Chicago’s Maxwell Street and was only 15 when he scored his first gig playing guitar behind West Side chanteuse Mary Lane. After spending most of the ’70s lost in the disco wilderness, he returned to the blues with stints backing Buddy Scott, A.C. Reed and Little Johnny Christian, with whom he recorded for Leric in the mid-’80s. His first album, however, did not come until 1994’s critically acclaimed Call Me on Wolf. Eight more CDs would follow for that label, including live dates at Lee’s Unleaded Blues in 1999 and Kingston Mines in 2014, as well as a compilation album in 2012.

Now, for his tenth CD on Wolf, Kelly has returned to the studio to cut his first album of all-original material with the current edition of his skin-tight Back Street Blues Band, now made up of trombonist Johnny Cotton, saxophonists Gary Salomon and Charles Kimble, John Walls on keyboards, Stan Mixon on bass and Johann Ross Jr. or De Shun Burns on drums, Dayrock and bass, with backing vocals courtesy of Ethel Reed and several of the bandsmen. The set kicks off with the musically and lyrically upbeat (“The blues is not sad music”) All About Life, followed by the George Benson–influenced instrumental Biscuits, Eggs, and Sausage. Another instrumental, aptly titled Jamming in the Studio, closes the set with solo space for both saxophonists, and Come On serves as a regrettable reminder of Kelly’s disco days. The rest of the disc’s 14 tracks, however, are solid examples of Kelly’s songwriting abilities. Get Home to My Baby is a straight blues taken at medium-slow tempo, the title track steps along in a Tyrone Davis groove, Moving On is an up-tempo, stop-time shuffle and Don’t Give My Love Away is the set’s most incendiary offering. Other standouts include the double-entendre Rumble Through Your Drawers, the redemption song Back on Track and the cautionary Sticker Than You.

This set provides ample proof that, 24 years after his debut recording, Vance Kelly remains at the forefront of the contemporary Chicago blues scene.

—Jim DeKoster 


JIMMIE VAUGHAN TRIO, FEATURING MIKE FLANIGINPRPCD142

Live at C-Boy’s

The Last Music Co. – No #

It’s obvious that Jimmie Vaughan needs no introduction. His tenure at the helm of the Fabulous Thunderbirds bequeathed him a reputation and pedigree as one of Texas’ most renowned guitarists and gave him the credence to stand on equal footing with many of the Lone Star State’s great axeman. It also laid the groundwork for a singular career that’s still based in the blues, but which also finds him piercing parameters with eloquence and imagination.

Consequently, Live at C-Boy’s serves as an ideal platform for a series of mostly instrumental arrangements performed by Vaughan and his equally accomplished compatriots—organist Mike Flanigin and the late drummer Barry “Frosty” Smith, the latter being the one-time foil for singer/keyboardist Lee Michaels. Although the set-up makes this a fairly barebones trio, they share a compatible approach as it’s applied to this selection of covers, which they recorded live at C-Boy’s Heart and Soul club in their hometown environs of Austin, Texas.

As evidenced from the results, Vaughan and Flanigin are solid soloists, and their instrumental interplay and call-and-response riffing finds them consistently in sync. The set list relies mostly on familiar standbys—jazzy takes on the Beatles’ Can’t Buy Me Love, a loose and limber version of the popular oldie Hey! Baby and gritty versions of the blues standards Saint James Infirmary and Dirty Work at the Crossroads among the standouts—and it’s apparent throughout that the three musicians welcome the chance to stretch out without conforming to the constraints of their own makeshift melodies. Indeed, these offerings rely less on vocals and more on extended instrumental forays to etch an ultimate impression.

That said, the music mostly brings to mind the sounds heard in a late night club or cabaret, where the emphasis is more on getting into a groove than inspiring a sense of concerted concentration. However, given an appreciative audience and the generally mellow vibe, Vaughan, Flanigin and Smith seem content to simply serve up their pleasant pastiche. As a result, Live at C-Boy’s becomes an effective exercise in the use of both subtlety and skill.

 —Lee Zimmerman


MARCIA BALLShine Bright by Marcia Ball

Shine Bright

Alligator Records – AL 4982

Marcia Ball chose a perfect title for her album, for the facets of every musical gem on this new album shine brightly with the light of Ball’s deep love for all kinds of music. It’s been 50 years since she released Gum, but Ball sings and plays just as passionately and still brings her high level of energy to every song. She’s having fun with her music, and Shine Bright soars with a joyous spirit.

The raucous, gospel-inflected title track launches the album with an infectious vibe that lifts our hearts and spirits and bodies, straight off the chair and onto the nearest dance floor. The tune opens with an urgent call-and-response patter between Ball’s piano and the other instruments before steadily ascending to a gloriously fervent celebration of various acts of individual courage and an ardent encouragement for everyone to embrace their own abilities to shine bright. The bridge features Mike Schermer’s searing guitar talking back to Ball’s funky piano; this section elevates the song into a burning, shining anthem that urges us to: “Shine bright / Be who you want to be / Shine bright / For all the world to see / Shine bright / We’re making history / Every time we breathe / Trying to do it right.” Ball shouts out the names of many whose lives shine bright: Jackie Robinson, Martin Luther King Jr., Neil Armstrong, Irma Thomas, Ruth Bader Ginsburg. They Don’t Make ’Em Like That is a steely-eyed, nostalgic tribute to days long gone and the ways that music, or objects like cars, are built to last. In a tune whose phrasing is reminiscent of Stack O’Lee and a late 1950s rocker, Eric Bernhardt on tenor sax and Steve Berlin on baritone stir in some soulful flavor when Ball reminisces about hearing King Curtis at a club, blowing a Curtis sax line just after Ball shouts out his name. Ball’s version of Ray Charles’ What Would I Do Without You might be better than the original; it’s a slow-burning soul song whose simmering blues mirrors the singer’s longing and desire. Once in a Lifetime Thing is a feel-good song about the once-in-a-lifetime experience of a “real true love” that has the sound of some great old Carolina beach music and Ray Charles’ Hallelujah, I Love Her So. In World Full of Love, the most beautiful song on the album, written by Ball and Kimmie Rhodes, the singers remind us that we “all hold the truth” and “in goodness we trust” in this “world full of love.” It’s a plea and a reminder to hold close what we have and to cherish the gift of love we’ve been given. The spare sounds of Ball’s piano, Schermer’s acoustic guitar and Red Young’s B-3, along with Ball’s, Rhodes’ and Jolie Goodnight’s vocals, powerfully preach the message of love.

Shine Bright is Ball’s precious gift to us, urging us to love others, to love the acts of others that have made us who we are, to cherish the memories of those who’ve established the world we live in and to celebrate the beauty of music—and to get down and dance to some rollicking music and have a good time.

—Henry L. Carrigan Jr.


GREG SOVERJubilee Album Cover

Jubilee

Greg Sover & Grounded Soul Records – No #

Jubilee celebrates Sover’s smart songwriting and his knack for finding the just right guitar phrasings and melodies. He’s a blues guitarist who plays with a soul man’s insight and a rocker’s sonic vision. He’s joined here by Garry Lee on bass and background vocals, Allen James on electric guitar, Tom Walling on drums and Wally Smith on keyboards.

The minor chord, symphonically structured Hand on My Heart could find company among any of Fleetwood Mac’s Bob Welch–era albums. The repetitive guitar chords build, layer upon layer, to create a sonic hypnotic effect. The song opens with the soft strumming of an acoustic guitar, slowly building to a crescendo of sound. It’s a heartbreak song but one that captures the irony of a familiar gesture: “Put your hand on my heart,” the singer pleads, not to feel how much it’s beating in love but to feel it “beat before it breaks.” As the Years Go Passing By opens with a searing guitar solo that telegraphs the pain and longing of the song. This slow-burning blues illustrates Sover’s canny playing and his ability not to waste notes on his solos. There’s an understated beauty to the song that reveals Sover’s quiet way of writing a blues song. Temptation, recorded live, is a straight-ahead, down-and-dirty tune that gives Sover a chance to stretch out on his rock riffs and to let the notes cascade down the frets as he showers us with his lead solos. The title track recalls Savoy Brown’s Poor Girl from Looking In with a guitar as crisp as Kim Simmonds; Sover’s song is a paean to a woman who “eases my pain from a mile away.” She’s the “fix” the singer needs, and she’s like therapy to him.

Jubilee solidifies Sover’s work as a guitarist, allowing him to showcase a variety of different styles. He reaches into our hearts with soulful songs such as Hand on My Heart even while he’s delivering a fiery blues rocker on Temptation. Sover’s versatility reveals his musical genius, and this album should gain him a wider audience.

—Henry L. Carrigan Jr.


JAMES HARMAN

Fineprint

Electro-Fi – 3454

“The large print giveth, but the fine print taketh away,” preaches James Harman over a John Lee Hooker boogie groove on the title track of his new Electro-Fi release. Still holding court after five decades of playing the blues professionally, Harman is now firmly ensconced as one of the great contemporary sage-tricksters of the genre. 

Harman is a fine harmonica player, despite being somewhat coy at times about his relationship to the instrument (“it’s just a little old whistle,” he once quipped in an interview); however, his greatest strength has always been his ability as a lyricist. This reviewer once had the pleasure of watching an inspired Harman spontaneously sketch out his song Green Snakeskin Shoes on a used bar napkin, with Rick Estrin assisting, backstage at one of Mark Hummel’s Blues Harmonica Blowout tours in the early 2000s. What a sight. 

That same spontaneity, a sense that anything can happen, is captured here as well, where Harman is joined again by longtime collaborator Nathan James, whose guitar lays the rhythmic foundation for Harman to do what he does best—tell stories. On the opening Fineprint, a streetwise Harman cautions listeners to watch for what might be hidden in those “lawyer hieroglyphics.” On At the Flophouse, “where life cuts a new deal every day,” Harman narrates the struggles of a motley cast of characters, punctuated by blasts from his chromatic harmonica. 

Sonny Leyland’s piano on the first of twin takes of What ’Cha Gonna Do ’Bout Me lends a New Orleans, second line feel to the proceedings. On one of the standout tracks, Memory Foam Mattress, the titular bed is transformed into a metaphor for a relationship gone rotten. Here, Harman delivers what may be one of the cleverest passages on the record: “I cashed in all those bottles you had blocking my garage / My troubles are all disappearing now like they’d been a damned mirage / When that insurance check finally comes in, I’ll create you a little shrine / And I’ll be smiling at it every morning, knowing you’re in hell and doing fine.”

As is typical of many of Harman’s releases, Fineprint marries recordings from various sessions, including a handful that were engineered by Jerry Hall before he died in early 2014. For those who acquire the physical CD, don’t forget to read the fine print—Harman’s personal notes describing each track make for an enjoyable read.

—Roger Gatchet


MARIE KNIGHTCover 1400x1400

The Gospel Truth Live

M.C. Records – MC-0084

As pivotal a role as singer Marie Knight played in the emergence of gospel music, particularly in the 1940s and 1950s, she remains surprisingly under-recognized. During those decades, she recorded and toured as a solo artist and fronted groups like the Sunset Four and the Millionaires; however, she made her greatest impact as a collaborator with Sister Rosetta Tharpe, touring and recording such classics as Beams of Heaven, Up Above My Head and Didn’t It Rain. Her own Gospel Train reached No. 9 on the R&B charts as she crossed over from the sacred to the secular in the late ’50s, performing on bills with Gene Chandler, Brook Benton and the Drifters. She also made a name for herself in Great Britain working with Humphrey Lyttelton, and in the mid-1960s, Manfred Mann scored a hit with a cover of her Come Tomorrow. By 1980, Knight drifted away from the music business and dedicated herself to work at the Gates of Prayer Church in Harlem, where she became pastor in the early 1990s. 

She returned to the music scene in 2003 to record an update of Didn’t It Rain for Shout, Sister, Shout: A Tribute to Sister Rosetta Tharpe. The album’s producer, Mark Carpentieri, became Knight’s manager, and she resumed her gospel music career, recording Let Us Get Together: A Tribute to Reverend Gary Davis (2007) with support from guitarist Larry Campbell and guest spots from harmonica player Kim Wilson and singer Catherine Russell. Recorded at the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts Gospel Fest a few months after the release of the Davis tribute, The Gospel Truth Live captures a profoundly moving and dynamic performance by the then 87-year-old singer, accompanied solely by pianist and background vocalist David Keyes. 

Knight delivers a program that includes six selections from the Let Us Get Together CD (I Belong to the Band, 12 Gates to the City, I’ll Fly Away, I Am the Light of the World, Lord I Feel Like Going On and Let Us Get Together), the three tunes drawn from her collaborations with Tharpe mentioned above and a few gospel standards (Jesus Loves Me, How I Love Jesus and For Thine Is the Kingdom). Knight seems right at home with the shift in accompaniment from Campbell’s rootsy guitar-driven work on the Davis CD to Keyes’ muscular, driving piano, which likely can be attributed to the fact that many of her vintage recordings from the ’40s and ’50s featured the irrepressible boogie-woogie piano master Sammy Price. 

During the hour-long program, Knight intersperses short segments of preaching that serve as song introductions and reveal not only her fervent faith but a deep insight into human nature and a wry humor, establishing a warm, honest rapport with the audience (and the listener to the recording). Though her powerful contralto voice does seem to have diminished over the years, Knight sings all the songs, whether they are her iconic hits or the Davis repertoire that she had only recently learned, with a tremendous warmth, power and conviction. There are no frills, no pretensions; this music is straightforward and soulful old-time gospel music delivered by a stunning singer and masterful pianist. Knight died two years after this performance, and The Gospel Truth Live is an inspiring swan song for an artist who deserves wider recognition for her contributions to the gospel music tradition.

— Robert H. Cataliotti


VARIOUS ARTISTS HAGfrontforCDBaby

Howlin’ at Greaseland

West Tone – WTR CD-1708

Howlin’ at Greaseland pays homage to the music of Howlin’ Wolf with a tight, well-crafted set from an accomplished Greaseland crew and guest artists. Each track features a different lineup with plug-and-play combinations of ace guitarists Kid Andersen, Rockin’ Johnny, Chris James and Johnny Cat; harp blowers Rick Estrin and Aki Kumar; and singers Alabama Mike, John Boyd, Lee Donald, nonagenarian keyboard master Henry Gray and Chicago West Side vocalist Tail Dragger—the latter two having both performed with Howlin’ Wolf’s band. Among the keyboard and rhythm section lineups are such great players as Jim Pugh, Vance Ehlers, June Core and saxophonist Terry Hanck. The tribute is complemented by a clever visual reference to the cover of Howlin’ Wolf’s iconic third LP, often referred to as the “rocking chair album.”

Howlin’ is a collection of classic Wolf tracks from the 1950s and ’60s that focuses on vocals and spirited grooves, with a welcome near-abstinence from soloing.

Singing the opener is the expressive Alabama Mike who opts for Wolf’s impassioned shout and then ad-libs nicely to fade on Meet Me in the Bottom (and this listener would not have begrudged him at least one additional track).

Vocalist John Boyd, born in Greenwood, Mississippi, employs his big-voiced basso on three tracks including a howling take on Smokestack Lightnin’ (with Rick Estrin’s deep-lunged approximation of Wolf’s savage, near-aspiration of the harmonica), Riding in the Moonlight and the closer, a short, straight reading of Spoonful.

Tail Dragger adds his lupine, raspy roar to the lesser-known, Wolf-penned track I’m Leaving You, as well as to the loping, one-chord Don’t Trust No Woman, backed on both by his old pal, the ever-trusty Rockin’ Johnny on guitar, with Aki Kumar on harp.

While it may have been in Wolf’s repertoire, he never recorded Worried Life Blues, sung here by his former piano player Henry Gray. Gray also sings and performs a lovely, low-key, piano-acoustic guitar duet with Kid Andersen on Little Red Rooster.

To round it out, Lee Donald sings a creditable Forty Four, accompanied by Kumar’s fine harp work, with June Core dropping bombs behind.

Howlin’ at Greaseland is a very good, and seemingly effortless recording that captures the love and facility these fine musicians have for the timeless blues of Howlin’ Wolf.

—Justin O’Brien


THE NICK MOSS BAND FEATURING DENNIS GRUENLINGThe High Cost Of Low Living by The Nick Moss Band featuring Denn

The High Cost of Low Living

Alligator Records – ALCD 4981

It would be enough if the Nick Moss Band coasted by on the searing fretwork of its namesake guitarist, content to leave him alone to fire up the fray. Happily, though, Moss is wise enough to share his billing with an able support crew that now includes harmonica virtuoso Dennis Gruening, at this point clearly one of the best in the biz. Consequently, The High Cost of Low Living, the duo’s debut under the venerable Alligator Records banner, yields a super summit of sorts, one that finds Moss and Gruenling trading licks in a full throttle demonstration of sheer boogie, verve and instrumental agility. 

It’s not that the two men were unacquainted; according to their press materials, they’ve known each other some 20 years. That chemistry is apparent here, particularly in the call and response riffs exchanged between them. Not surprisingly, that shared rapport dominates such ruggedly up-tempo tunes as Crazy Mixed Up Baby, Get Right Before You Get Left, Tight Grip on Your Leash and Rambling on My Mind. Gruenling himself excels on All Night Diner, a rollicking instrumental tour de force that stands out as one of the album’s most adept examples of both drive and dexterity. On the other hand, Moss’ vocals boast a command and authority that elevate the music through his assertive presence alone. His simmering growl on the slow, strutting No Sense and emotive wail on Note on the Door make each a definitive example of pure blues at its most urgently expressive. 

Ultimately, The High Cost of Low Living works within a well-defined template. While Moss and Gruenling clearly command the spotlight, a sturdy rhythm section, a brass component and ace piano plucker Taylor Streiff provide a flourish of their own, imbuing these arrangements with an additional source of resolve and revelry. Streiff in particular proves a robust team player; his frenzied forays on Get Your Hands Out of My Pockets and Count on Me add a fluidity that helps these grooves attain their full forward thrust. Indeed, the drive is sustained throughout, and even when there’s a temporary turn to more somber proceedings on the deliberately paced He Walked with Giants (Ode to Barrelhouse Chuck), the commitment is never in question. 

It’s the rare ensemble that can channel assets from so many quarters. With The High Cost of Low Living, Moss and company manage to achieve that goal both efficiently and effectively

—Lee Zimmerman

Living Blues Radio Chart October 2018

Lindsay Beaver2


  1. Lindsay Beaver,  Tough As Love, Alligator
  2. Colin James,  Miles To Go, Stony Plain
  3. Walker/Katz/Robson,  Journeys To The Heart Of The Blues, Alligator
  4. Fiona Boyes,  Voodoo In The Shadows, Reference Recordings
  5. Shemekia Copeland,  America’s Child, Alligator
  6. Buddy Guy,  The Blues Is Alive And Well, Silvertone/RCA
  7. Kenny “Blues Boss” Wayne,  Inspired By The Blues, IDLA/Stony Plain
  8. Billy F. Gibbons,  The Big Bad Blues, Concord
  9. Kirk Fletcher,  Hold On, KF
  10. Mark Hummel,  Harpbreaker, Electro-Fi
  11. Doug Deming & The Jewel Tones,  Complicated Mess, EllerSoul
  12. Various Artists,  Chicago Plays The Stones, Raisin’ Music
  13. Frank Bey,  Back In Business, NOLA Blue
  14. Trudy Lynn,  Blues Keep Knockin’, Connor Ray
  15. Anthony Geraci,  Why Did You Have To Go, Shining Stone
  16. Teeny Tucker,  Put On Your Red Dress Baby, TeBo
  17. Bob Margolin,  Bob Margolin, VizzTone
  18. Reverend Peyton’s Big Damn Band,  Poor Until Payday, Thirty Tigers
  19. Boz Scaggs,  Out Of The Blues, Concord
  20. Dave Keller,  Every Soul’s A Star, Catfood
  21. Bryan Lee,  Sanctuary, Earrelevant
  22. Tony Joe White,  Bad Mouthin’, Yep Roc
  23. JW Jones,  Live, Solid Blues
  24. Kevin Burt,  Heartland & Soul, Little Village
  25. Rod Piazza,  His Instrumentals, Rip Cat

Living Blues Radio Report January 2020


  1. Tinsley Ellis,  Ice Cream in Hell, Alligator
  2. Frank Bey,  All My Dues Are Paid, NOLA Blue
  3. Dave Specter,  Blues…from the Inside Out, Delmark
  4. Betty Fox Band,  Peace in Pieces, Foxy Cavanagh
  5. Mark Hummel,  Wayback Machine, Electro-Fi
  6. Thorbjorn Risager & Black Tornado,  Come On In, Ruf
  7. Mike Zito & Friends,  Rock ‘n’ Roll: A Tribute to Chuck Berry, Ruf
  8. 11 Guys Quartet,  Small Blues and Grooves, VizzTone
  9. Jimmy Johnson,  Every Day of Your Life, Delmark
  10. Sugar Blue,  Colors, Beeble Music
  11. Johnny Burgin,  Live, Delmark
  12. The Jimmys,  Gotta Have It, Brown Cow
  13. Lucky Peterson,  50 – Just Warming Up, Jazz Village
  14. Chris Shutters,  Good Gone Bad, Third Street Cigar
  15. Toronzo Cannon and the Chicago Way,  The Preacher, the Politician or the Pimp, Alligator
  16. Joanna Connor,  Rise, M.C.
  17. Various Artists,  Don’t Pass Me By: Tribute to Sean Costello, Landslide
  18. Popa Chubby,  It’s a Mighty Hard Road, PCP
  19. Phantom Blues Band,  Still Cookin’, VizzTone
  20. Rae Gordon Band,  Wrong Kind of Love, RGB
  21. Tomislav Goluban,  Memphis Light, Spona
  22. Diane Blue,  Look for the Light, Regina Royale
  23. Matty T. Wall,  Transpacific Blues Vol.1, Hipster/Dumpster
  24. Junior Watson,  Nothin’ to It But to Do It, Little Village
  25. Breezy Rodio,  If It Ain’t Broken Don’t Fix It, Delmark

Living Blues Radio Chart December 2018

image


  1. Paul Oscher,  Cool Cat, Blues Fidelity
  2. Lindsay Beaver,  Tough As Love, Alligator
  3. Walker/Katz/Robson,  Journeys To The Heart Of The Blues, Alligator
  4. Fiona Boyes,  Voodoo In The Shadows, Reference
  5. Teeny Tucker,  Put On Your Red Dress Baby, TeBo
  6. Billy F. Gibbons,  The Big Bad Blues, Concord
  7. Kevin Burt,  Heartland & Soul, Little Village
  8. Colin James,  Miles To Go, Stony Plain
  9. Doug Deming & The Jewel Tones,  Complicated Mess, EllerSoul
  10. Maria Muldaur,  Don’t You Feel My Leg, Last Music Co.
  11. Kenny “Blues Boss” Wayne,  Inspired By The Blues, IDLA/Stony Plain
  12. Kirk Fletcher,  Hold On, KF
  13. Mark Hummel,  Harpbreaker, Electro-Fi
  14. Bobby BlackHat,  Put On Your Red Shoes, BBH
  15. Knickerbocker All-Stars,  Love Makes A Woman, JP Cadillac
  16. Eden Brent,  An Eden Brent Christmas, Yellow Dog
  17. Erin Harpe & The Delta Swingers,  The Christmas Swing, Juicy Juju/Vizztone
  18. Shemekia Copeland,  America’s Child, Alligator
  19. Frank Bey,  Back In Business, NOLA Blue
  20. Buddy Guy,  The Blues Is Alive And Well, Silvertone/RCA
  21. Dave Keller,  Every Soul’s A Star, Catfood
  22. Rod Piazza,  His Instrumentals, Rip Cat
  23. Reverend Peyton’s Big Damn Band,  Poor Until Payday, Thirty Tigers
  24. Catfish Keith,  Reefer Hound: Viper Songs Revisited, Fish Tail
  25. Ms. Zeno The Mojo Queen,  Back In Love, Blue Lotus