Over time, even if you are on the cutting edge of new blues releases, some excellent albums manage to slip through the cracks, depending on when they're released, what other great releases come out around the same time, or even how low your funds were at the time. We here at Friday Blues Fix consider it a public service keeping our devoted audience informed about discs that they might have missed the first time around, so check out these five hidden gems.
Sleeping With A Stranger (Hightone): Hightone Records definitely had a pretty hot streak with new blues artists, beginning in the mid 80's with Robert Cray, and the late 80's with Joe Louis Walker. They hoped to strike gold again in the mid 90's with James Armstrong. The young Californian certainly had the pedigree....his father was a jazz guitarist and his mother was a blues singer, and as a youngster he backed Albert Collins, Big Joe Turner, and Smokey Wilson. Armstrong himself was a fantastic songwriter, a powerful, soul-inflected singer, and a better-than-average guitarist. All of these elements came together perfectly on this debut recording from 1995, and the future seemed boundless for Armstrong.
Unfortunately, in 1997, Armstrong and his young son were attacked and nearly killed by a drug-crazed robber who broke into their home. Armstrong was stabbed several times in the shoulder and his injuries were so bad that months of rehab were required. He was left with limited motion in his left hand and was forced to adjust his playing style, taking up slide guitar to improve his dexterity. He has released two subsequent albums since the injury, using others to play lead guitar (Joe Louis Walker and Doug MacLeod) on occasion. Fortunately, Armstrong's composing skills and singing skills are still intact and his guitar work is improving. All three of his discs are worth having, but Sleeping With A Stranger is the most complete of the three.
In It For The Ride: I met Tim Petersen several years ago on the old Blues Access message board. He was searching for an old Fred Below article from Living Blues and I sent him a copy of it. At the time, he was playing drums for one of Denmark's premier blues bands, Lightnin' Moe and the Peace Disturbers. We kept in touch off and on, and after a prolonged absence, he emailed me and told me he was learning to play guitar and was going to send me a copy of his debut CD that he had just released. I was surprised not only that he had learned to play guitar so quickly, but that he was confident enough to record an album of him playing guitar. When I got it in the mail, I was astonished at how good it was, both his fretwork and his singing. It was an amazing release.
In It For The Ride was his second solo release, and it was even better. His guitar work really grabs you and his singing is impressive as well. This disc is a mix of original tunes and covers of some great pre-war blues. If this one finds its way to your stereo, you'll have a hard time taking it off. Below is a video compilation that Lothar made of one of his shows in 2009, with a few songs from this CD.
It's About Time (Spindletop): You won't find a truer album title. Guitarist Bell was one of the unsung heroes of Texas guitar, influencing dozens of guitarists in the Austin area. Bowser was a rousing piano man. This wonderful release from the Spindletop layer, which put out an incredibly impressive catalog of recordings during its short life, was nominated for a Handy in 1992 and deservedly so. Bell and Bowser split the vocal duties on a dozen tracks of mostly cover tunes. The duo had played together off and on since the 50's, but formed the Blues Specialists in the late 80's and played together until Bowser's death in 1995. Bell passed away in 1999. This disc is a fine testament to these underrated pair's talents. This is Texas Blues at its best.
Mighty Crazy (Wooden Monkey): This CD might make you think you've gone back in time to the late 50's/early 60's-era Chess and Excello blues recordings. The band, out of San Diego, is that authentic in their approach, and frontman Milsap's vocals bring to mind Frank Frost or Sam Myers. The band tackles vintage songs from Frost (see video of "Pocket Full of Money" below), Myers, Muddy Waters, and Lazy Lester and almost make them their own. Simply put, if you like that old school style of blues, then you will love the Fremonts. This was one of my favorite releases in 2006.