Friday, January 15, 2021

Friday Blues Fix's Top 20 For 2020

Well, 2020 wasn't much to cheer about....a year best seen in your rear view mirror.  However, there were some very good blues recordings that helped blues fans get through it.  It was a very hectic year for your humble correspondent and his family, but I was able to listen to a lot of great music in what spare time I had.  I also missed a few, too, I'm sure, but below are the best 20 blues albums that I heard this year.  Stay tuned for the next online issue of Blues Bytes to see which of these 20 made up my Top Ten for the year.  
Friday Blues Fix's Top 2020 for 2020 (in no particular order)

Johnny Rawls -
Where Have All The Soul Men Gone?  (Third Street Cigar Records):  Mr. Rawls does it again with a fantastic album of blues and soul.  His songs always sound like old favorites with a nice modern feel.  Fortunately, there's still a few soul men still with us (see below), and thank goodness Johnny Rawls is one of them!

Liz Mandeville - Playing With Fire (Blue Kitty Music):  One of the nicest stories in the blues this year.  Ms. Mandeville was in a terrible accident back in 2016 and was told she'd never perform again, but she beat the odds and came back with a vengeance.....some nine months after the accident.  She's at her best on this set, both as a performer and a songwriter with a very distinctive style.

Kat Riggins - Cry Out (Gulf Coast Records):  Ms. Riggins is a talent who deserves to be heard by a wider audience and this album should be the one to make that happen, if there's any justice in the world.  A powerful vocalist, Riggins is also a talented songwriter who reaches down deep for inspiration.

Sam Joyner - When U Need A Friend (Sam Joyner Music):  I wasn't familiar with Joyner, even though he reached the finals at the I.B.C. two consecutive years.  After listening to this fine album, it all made sense to me.  His brand of blues is a combination of Chicago blues, New Orleans R&B, and the smoothest soul blues this side of Malaco Records.  Great set.

Sonny Landreth - Blacktop Run (Provogue Records):  You can't go wrong with this slide guitarist extraordinaire, especially when he focuses on the blues as firmly as he does on this excellent release, which blends the blues with various Louisiana styles, Americana, jazz, and R&B.  Landreth first blew me away backing John Hiatt over thirty years ago and then with his 1995 release, South of I-10.  He still blows me away a quarter century later.

Sonny Green
- Found!  One Soul Singer (Little Village Foundation):   I am not sure how this could be Green's first album....the California-based singer has recorded a handful of sought-after 45's over the years, but this is a revelation.  Green brings a little bit of Bobby "Blue" Bland, a little bit of Little Milton, and a dash of 70's-era Hi Records to the table and it's a mighty fine concoction.  A must-listen for blues and soul fans.

Nora Jean Wallace
- BluesWoman (Severn Records):  I first heard Ms. Wallace backing Jimmy Dawkins on a couple of his mid 80's albums and she recorded a couple of solid albums in the early 2000's before taking time off to care for her sick mother.  She's back on the scene now with Severn  Records, supported by their fine house band on this excellent set and shows she's as formidable a vocalist now as she was pre-hiatus.  Hopefully, we won't have to wait 16 years for her next album. 

New Moon Jelly Roll Freedom Rockers
- Volume 1 (Stony Plain Records):  This fantastic, loose-limbed jam session, with the North Mississippi Allstars, Charlie Musselwhite, Alvin Youngblood Hart, Jimbo Mathus, and the late Jim Dickinson sat on the shelf for a dozen years, believe it or not.  Even better, there's a Volume 2 on the way this spring that's reportedly even better.  Can't wait!!

Jose Ramirez - Here I Come:  A native of Costa Rica, guitarist Ramirez placed second in the 2020 I.B.C.  This release finds him teaming up with Anson Funderburgh, Jim Pugh, and friends in Austin.  He shows amazing diversity, playing the blues, soul, and even a taste of New Orleans.  His guitar work is amazing from track to track, and he's a great singer and songwriter, too.  Don't miss this one!   

Don Bryant
- You Make Me Feel (Fat Possum Records):  Responsible for some of the best songs recorded on Hi Records, Bryant focused on gospel music and his wife Ann Peebles' career for a number of years before returning to the secular music world a few years ago.  Bryant still sounds fabulous and still knows how to write a tune.  Fans of Hi and Stax need this in their collection.

Dan Penn
- Living On Mercy (The Last Music Company):  It's been over a quarter century since Penn released a studio recording (notwithstanding a series of "demos" self-released and hard to find), but that's perfectly fine if he does as fine a job as he does on this release.  A great mix of some older Penn songs with some really good new songs, and the man sounds just as soulful as ever.  

Andrew Alli - Hard Workin' Man (EllerSoul Records):  Alli was a bit of a late bloomer, taking up the harmonica at age 20, but did he ever catch on fast!!  This is his debut recording and he sounds like he's been doing this his whole life.  This is a great set of traditional Chicago-styled blues and he pays tribute to some of the Windy City's harp masters, all of whom would be duly impressed with this young talent.

Lisa Mills
- The Triangle (Melody Place Music):  Mills traveled to Muscle Shoals, Memphis, and Jackson, MS (home of Malaco Records), recording her versions of songs native to the regions, backed by artists also native to the region.  The result is some mighty fine music by one of the best voices in blues and roots music today.  She deserves to be heard and this is a great place to start listening.

Gerald McClendon - Can't Nobody Stop Me Now (Delta Roots Records):  I first heard McClendon on last year's Battle of the Blues - Chicago vs. Oakland set......only one tune, but this release more than makes up for that with this fine set of soul-blues.  A fantastic and versatile vocalist, McClendon does an excellent job on this set of original blues, soul, and R&B tunes.

The Robert Cray Band
- That's What I Heard (Nozzle Records):  Cray continues his collaboration with Steve Jordan and they continue to explore the Memphis side of the blues and soul.  A delightful mix of solid Cray originals with well-chosen covers of rarely-heard tunes.  Blues fans owe a lot to Cray for his mid-80's contributions that helped lead to the resurgence of the music and he continues to consistently produce some wonderful recordings.

Johnny Iguana
- Johnny Iguana's Chicago Spectacular!  (Delmark Records):  If you've happened to hear any of piano man Iguana's recordings with the Claudettes (and you really should), you kind of know what to expect.  With assistance from some of Chicago's finest (John Primer, Lil' Ed Williams, Billy Boy Arnold, and Bob Margolin to name a few), Iguana breathes new life into some of the city's classic blues tunes and contributes some fantastic instrumentals of his own.

Kern Pratt
- Greenville, MS....What About You? (Endless Blues Records):  This one came out in late December of 2019, so it was too late to get it in for my Top 20 last year.  I told him after I reviewed it that I would have put it on that list if I'd had a chance to listen.  I'm putting it on this one.  His love for the music came through in every note he played and sang.  I have probably played this as much as any new recording I played this year.  He will be much missed on the Mississippi blues scene and the national blues scene.  

John Blues Boyd
- What My Eyes Have Seen.... (Gulf Coast Records):  Another late bloomer, Boyd worked as a roofer for over 40 years, retiring to take care of his ailing wife.  He began singing and writing songs in his spare time and soon began performing.  On this compelling album, Boyd tells his story...including his exodus from his native Mississippi in the early 60's, his career, his journey to California, and his love for his wife and the blues.  His magnificent voice is worth the price of the album, but there's so much more to savor.  

Bobby Rush
- Rawer Than Raw (Deep Rush Records):  I never cease to be amazed at Bobby Rush.  Now 87 years old and approaching 70 years in the business, he's as energetic and creative as he's ever been, just tearing into this incredible set of acoustic blues that includes classic takes on material from Willie Dixon, Robert Johnson, Sonny Boy Williamson (Version II), Skip James and Howlin' Wolf, mixing in a few of his own tunes for good measure.  As I said in my review last month, I can't see anyone not enjoying this recording.

John Nemeth
- Stronger Than Strong (Nola Blue Records):  I really like how Nemeth doesn't stay in one spot musically from album to album.  This set goes in a new direction for the singer, mixing swamp, country, and Hill Country blues.  There's still plenty of soul and R&B in the stew, but I really like the direction he takes with this release.  It's ragged, but righteous.

 So, what are your favorites of 2020?  Feel free to share them in the Comments below.....

Friday, January 1, 2021

Happy New Year To All

Well, as far as years go, 2020 was pretty much a stinker.  It was one of the toughest we've ever experienced around here and there have been some tough ones in recent years.  This year, my spouse has battled serious health issues which started around this time in the last year.  She's endured a lot this year, but she is bouncing back and doing well, so at least we are ending 2020 in better shape than we ended 2019 and hopefully, things will continue to improve.  For those who were aware of things, we appreciate all the good thoughts and prayers sent her way.  She is my rock and my reason to be and not only that, she enjoys the blues and has encouraged me to enjoy them as much as I possibly can over the years.  

I apologize for the lack of posts over the past few weeks.  I don't get a lot of traffic on the site anymore, but I really appreciate what I do get and I know those who visit love the blues as much as I do.  I hope to have more time and to do much better in 2021.  The picture shows what I will be doing tomorrow to celebrate New Year's Day.  I'm still in an old blues mood and I have really enjoyed listening to these discs since the summer....believe it or not, I had not listened to much Big Bill Broonzy over the years, but based on what I've just been listening to, I will be finding more as soon as I can.  

Meanwhile, my daughter and son-in-law gave me one of their record players.....the first one I've had since I was a kid.  They also gave me a few used albums to listen to for Christmas, but I also gave myself a Christmas present.....a 45 recording from Robert Nighthawk recorded by George Mitchell just three months before he passed away in 1967.  I wasn't sure what to expect, but he sounds just as good on these three tracks (Side A is "Canned Heat, Side B is "Nighthawk Boogie" and "Down By The Woodshed") as he did on all of his other recordings.  His slide guitar play just gives me goose bumps on my goose bumps.

On a sad note, the blues world lost a good one on Christmas Eve, when Mississippi blues man Kern Pratt passed away.  He had been in ICU for a couple of weeks battling pancreatitis when he contracted COVID.  We reviewed his most recent release, the excellent Greenville, MS.....What About You? a few months ago, and he released a great single with Will Wesley, "A New Kind Of Blues," that addressed all of the madness and chaos that we all had to deal with last's a bit ironic now since that's what took him away from us.  I had recently contacted Pratt and we had discussed doing a Ten Questions in the coming months, but he got sick a few weeks later.  He will be much missed on the Mississippi blues scene for sure.

Anyway, that's all for now.  Hopefully, we will have a Top Twenty List for 2020 in a few weeks and maybe pay tribute to those we lost over the past year, plus more correspondence in-between.  Have a Happy 2021!!

Friday, December 4, 2020

In Case You Missed Them.....Like I Did

Every once in a while, I will find a few great releases for bargain prices that I missed the first time around.  At the time most of these were released, I was caught in everyday life events or a little shy of money (It would be physically, and financially, impossible for me to pick up every release I want to hear anytime I venture into a record store, physical or virtual) and I forgot about them, only to be reminded of them in recent weeks.  Here's a few that I recently tracked case you, like me, missed them.

Professor Longhair - Mardi Gras In New Orleans:  1949-1957 (Nighthawk Records):  Actually, I owned this on cassette many moons's probably still around, in fact.....but I had never found it on CD.  It's been reissued a couple of times over the years since I grabbed my copy in the late 80's.  During the 50's, Fess recorded for a host of different labels and this set collects his recordings for Star Talent Records, Mercury Records, Ebb Records, Federal Records, Wasco Records, and one from Atlantic (who collected their 50's recordings of Fess on New Orleans Piano.....grab it if you can find it).  Professor Longhair's repertoire was not very vast, by any means, and he recorded several of these tracks more than once, but I've never met anyone who said they had enough Professor Longhair in their collection.  If you can find this one, on whatever label it's issued on, I highly recommend it.  Fess's 50's recordings, all of them, are a blast to hear.

Bobby Radcliff - Live at the Rynborn (Black Top Records):  I met the incredible Bobby Radcliff on Facebook a few years ago, via Ilana Katz Katz while I was interviewing her for FBF.  He's a really nice, friendly guy and I would love to interview him someday.  I first heard him on his first two Black Top releases (Dresses Too Short and Universal Blues) in the early 90's and his guitar playing was just amazing.  Those are still two of my favorites, but I was never able to track down his second two releases for the label before they closed up shop.  I had heard good things about both of them and I was finally able to track down his live release a few weeks ago.  I didn't think I could be blown away by his guitar work any more than I was with Dresses Too Short the first time I heard it, but I was wrong.  This set was recorded in late 1996 at the Rynborn Theatre in Antrim, New Hampshire, and Radcliff plays the whole set like his hair is on fire and he makes most of these songs (nearly all covers) his own with his unique and dynamic guitar work.  It's just a jaw-dropping experience from start to finish.  Believe me when I say that if you like blues guitar, especially the old school Chicago West Side variety, you need to treat yourself to Bobby Radcliff.  You can thank me later.

Johnny Winter - White Hot Blues (Columbia/Legacy Records):  I wrote about Johnny Winter after he passed away in 2014, focusing on his mid-80's recordings for Alligator Records.  As I wrote at the time, I was not familiar with his pre-Alligator recordings when I started listening, and truthfully, I had not really backtracked to hear them, planning to do it one day down the road.  Well, a few weeks ago, "one day down the road" took place, and I found this set that collects 16 of his most blues-related tracks from his tenure with Columbia (1969 - 1980).  I had seen this set when it was first made available in the late 90's, but never picked it up.  These tracks are really good....not quite as raw to these ears as those Alligator recordings, but it's pretty close.  He was always a flashy guitarist, but these tracks are strongly grounded in the blues.  Of course, the line between Johnny Winter's vision of blues and rock n' roll has always been a very thin one.  These are the best pure blues tracks he laid down prior to his Alligator run.  I know most everyone who was a fan came to Johnny Winter from the opposite direction that I did, but really there's not a bad way to discover him.

Friday, November 13, 2020

In Case You Missed It.......The Hook and the Prince of Darkness

A couple of years ago, one Sunday afternoon, I stumbled across a movie called The Hot Spot.  Since I caught it at the beginning, I started watching it, but after a while it became one of those train wreck movies where you just couldn't take your eyes off it despite your best intentions.  Yep, it was two hours I won't ever get back, a really bad movie that was trying its best to imitate those 50's film noir movies...just a bad experience, or at least it was until the credits started rolling.

The end credits were backed by this funky boogie blues rhythm with a muted trumpet playing over it.  For the first time during the entire movie, I was riveted to the screen......who was playing this wonderful music??  It sounded like Miles Davis on the trumpet.....I'm a huge Miles Davis fan, but I couldn't imagine him playing on the soundtrack of this movie.  I decided to search to find out just who was behind this great music.

Lo and behold, it was indeed Miles Davis, the Prince of Darkness, playing on this track.  Not only that, he was being backed by John Lee Hooker on this particular track and the great drummer Earl Palmer, along with slide guitarist extraordinaire Roy Rogers and another legend, Taj Mahal.  Through further research, I discovered that Miles played on most of the soundtrack and was backed on other tunes by slide guitarist Roy Rogers and Taj Mahal.  The soundtrack was also available on the Antilles label (a subsidiary of Island Records), though it was out of print.  I tracked down a copy of the soundtrack (which actually cost more than the DVD, which was apparently also out of print....can't argue with that).

I've been a fan of Miles Davis since my early twenties (I posted here about his first quintet many years ago).  Like many jazz musicians of his day, the blues permeated every note of his music, especially in his early career.  In his later years, and this music was some of the last that he recorded, he made a return to more blues influence in his music after his torrid fusion period from the late 60's to the mid 70's.  

Despite being aware of the blues influence in his music, it never occurred to me that Davis would play with any other blues artists, let alone John Lee Hooker, but based on the quote above, Davis respected Hooker's music immensely, and the tracks on which these two collaborate really cook.  No one, I mean NO ONE, worked a groove like the great JLH and Davis' trumpet over this nasty, greasy, Delta groove is just wondrous.  Of course, with a rhythm section like Palmer and bassist Tim Drummond, two of the finest to play their respective instruments, there's no way to go astray. 


Rogers and Taj Mahal's contributions are equally fine, but just in case you missed it, this was Miles Davis and John Lee Hooker......two of the giants in their respective musical fields......coming together and making it count, even if it is on the soundtrack of a most forgettable movie.  The soundtrack to The Hot Spot is certainly not forgettable in the least and if you like blues or jazz, track down this CD.  You can skip the movie though.