Jarekus Singleton - Refuse To Lose (Alligator Records): I first heard of Jarekus Singleton not as a musician, but as a basketball player, and a mighty fine one at that....one of the best in Mississippi during his high school years at Clinton High School, then a nice career at the University of Southern Mississippi, until his career was cut short by an ankle injury. Even during his years as a hoops star, he was a musician as well, playing guitar in his grandfather's church beginning at age 9, and later taking in the blues, along with hip-hop, rap (even performing as a rapper), and country music during his teenage years.
He's built a big following in Mississippi as a blues artist, competing in the I.B.C. during the last four years. Alligator chief Bruce Iglauer signed Singleton to the label in 2013 and this is his debut with the label, second album overall. He combines his musical interests together on this album. His lyrics are similar to rap lyrics in content and approach, call it modern urban blues if you want, while sticking to the roots of traditional blues. He has a pretty effective way of expressing himself, and is really good on the couple of autobiographical tracks that he includes. He's a pretty impressive guitarist as well and these songs have a diverse approach, mixing rock and jazz on various tracks, but they're still all about the blues.
Dave Keller - Soul Changes (Tastee-Tone Records): Keller's previous release, Where I'm Coming From, was one of my favorite recordings of 2011. For this excellent follow-up, Keller split time between Memphis, backed by the legendary Hi Rhythm Section (including the late Teenie Hodges), and Brooklyn, with he's backed by the Revelations. Honestly, you can't tell where one session ends and the other begins. Both bands are that good.
This time around, Keller mixes a few impressive originals with some choice soul covers. As on his last release, the covers will probably not be familiar to most listeners, but it just shows how the best old songs don't always become hits, even though they probably should. Keller does a fantastic job on all of the tracks, but his originals really stand out, notably the autobiographical "17 Years," co-written by Keller and Darryl Carter (who co-wrote several of Bobby Womack's hits) which outlines the end of Keller's marriage. Folks, this is some mighty fine soul music and is well worth tracking down if you have any interest in soul music at all.
Mannish Boys - Wrapped Up and Ready (Delta Groove Records): You pretty much know what you're getting with any Mannish Boys release.....a rock solid set of blues featuring some of the West Coast's finest musicians. Randy Chortkoff, Kirk "Eli" Fletcher, Franck "Paris Slim" Goldwasser, Willie J. Campbell, and Jimi Bott are back again, and joined by guest musicians Kim Wilson, Candye Kane, Bob Corritore, Steve Freund, Kid Ramos, Laura Chavez, and Monster Mike Welch.
Also present is singer Sugaray Rayford, who shared vocal duties with Finis Tasby on the group's previous CD. Tasby suffered a debilitating stroke in late 2012, so Rayford takes the majority of vocals this time around, along with guest vocals from Kane, Goldwasser, Chortkoff, and Freund. The set list is a mix of originals and covers of songs from Ike Turner, Robert Ward, Roy Brown, and Magic Sam. Wrapped Up and Ready is sixteen tracks of blues heaven that no blues lover should be without.
The Nighthawks - 444 (EllerSoul Records): The Nighthawks are now in their FIFTH decade of performing and recording. This is their debut release for EllerSoul Records, a blues, soul, and roots label that is building an impressive catalog. As always, the Nighthawks mix good old rock & roll in with their brand of blues, covering a pair of old Elvis Presley movie tunes, putting their own personal spin on each, an Everly Brothers classic, and even a standout rocking doo-wop track from the Du-Droppers ("Walk That Talk").
What would a Nighthawks release be without at least one Muddy Waters song? This time, it's a fantastic acoustic take on "Louisiana Blues." Founding member and front man Mark Wenner is still going strong at well over forty years, and the band (guitarist Paul Bell, bassist Johnny Castle, drummer Mark Stutso) are a well-oiled machine in support. It's always a pleasure to hear a new release from the Nighthawks.....they're always taking the blues in new and different directions, continuing to blaze new trails. 444 will thrill longtime fans and send new fans backtracking to hear what they missed.
Dave Specter - Message In Blue (Delmark Records): Guitarist Specter has been a part of the Chicago blues scene since the 80's and this is his tenth release, ninth for Delmark. Over the years, Specter has always worked with some of the genre's best singers, and his new disc is no exception. Soul/blues legend Otis Clay joins Specter on three tunes, including a wonderful take on Wilson Picket's "I Found A Love," and keyboard player Brother John Kattke also contributes vocals on several tracks.
However, the real star vocalist on this disc is Specter's guitar. Over the years, he has branched out into jazz, funk, and even Latin rhythms, and this release finds him at the height of his powers on the six-string. Specter is more than capable of carrying an entire disc himself with just his guitar. However, listeners get the best of both worlds with this release with great guitar and vocals.
The Christopher Dean Band - Call Me Later (Lost World Music): Christopher Dean mixes traditional Chicago-styled blues with Southern soul/blues.....something that's not done a lot these days. It's pretty cool to hear songs from Mel Waiters and Johnny Rawls on the same disc as songs from Willie Dixon and Muddy Waters. Dean handles all of them with ease. He's an excellent guitarist, a silky smooth vocalist, and is developing into a fine songwriter as well, contributing four songs of his own to the disc.
In addition, Dean mixes four acoustic tracks from artists like Robert Johnson, Lonnie Johnson, and Blind Blake, plus a reworking of the Bobby Bland classic, "Share Your Love." Dean worked in the late 90's with Big Jack Johnson, appearing on a few of the Oil Man's recordings on M.C. Records, before taking off on his own. I really like the way he mixes the blues with soul, mainly because this is the same way I started listening to the blues, but also because he's so darn good at it. You may not be familiar with his work, but once you do hear it you'll want to hear more.
Michael Packer - I Am The Blues - My Story Volume 1 & 2 (Iris Music Group): Packer released Volume 1 of his life story in 2013. It was a frank (sometimes brutally) account of his years in the music world, detailing his lengthy battles with drugs and alcohol which led to a prison term and homelessness. Volume 1 hinted at his comeback from such dire situations, but Volume 2 gives more detail about how Packer fought back to become a mainstay of the NYC music scene. As on the previous volume, Packer mixes his recollections with songs from his past with his blues band and his band, Free Beer.
There's also a fond tribute to Honeyboy Edwards (including a duet the two did), and a pair of new inspirational songs describing his spiritual rebirth, a nice cover of "The Thrill Is Gone," and reminiscences of the events of 9/11. As Packer relates his story, you get the sense that he realizes just how fortunate he is to have gotten this second chance, and that he's going to make the most of that opportunity. Packer's story is now collected in a two-disc set, so you can get the whole story at one time, and it's one worth hearing for all blues fans.
Colleen Rennison - See The Sky About To Rain (Black Hen Music): Music fans may be familiar with the lovely Ms. Rennison as the lead singer for the Canadian rock band No Sinner (and if you're not, you need to check them out), which is renowned for their frenetic live shows and her wild, untamed vocals. Whether you're familiar or not, her debut solo effort will be a breath of fresh air. Working with producer/multi-instrumentalist Steve Dawson, Rennison shows herself to be an amazing vocalist more than capable of transcending genres.
Rennison moves effortlessly from Stax-flavored soul to bluegrass to country to blues, recreating songs from Robbie Robertson, Leonard Cohen, Bobbie Gentry, Townes Van Zandt, Tom Russell, and Joni Mitchell. Dawson provides wonderful backing, playing nearly every stringed instrument of record and using that same vintage recording equipment that made his recent release so compelling, and it never hurts to have the McCrary sisters providing backing vocals. Honestly though, I think I could sit and listen to Rennison sing a lawn mower repair manual. Fortunately, I won't have to, thanks to this exquisite release. Trust me, she's the real deal, folks.
Thorbjorn Risager and the Black Tornado - Too Many Roads (Ruf Records): Based on the cover, Thorbjorn Risager looks like Sinatra, but he sings like Howlin' Wolf. He may bring to mind a few other great singers as well, like Ray Charles and Joe Cocker, but he's very much his own man on these twelve stunning tracks that explore the blues via blues-rock, soul, country, traditional, and urban blues. Risager, who also plays guitar and wrote most of the tunes, is backed by The Black Tornado, a seven-piece unit that sounds like they've been playing this type of music all of their lives.
You might be wondering where Risager has been all this time. Obviously, based on his moniker, he's not a local Mississippi guy singing the blues. In fact, he's from Denmark and has taken Europe by storm over the past few years, releasing his previous seven albums as The Thorbjorn Risager Band. This is his first recording for Ruf Records, which hopefully will enable him to get some well-deserved attention internationally. A voice like his deserves to be heard.
Vaneese Thomas - Blues For My Father (Segue Records): Thomas has the musical street cred. Her father is Memphis music legend Rufus Thomas. Her sister is singer Carla Thomas, who charted multiple hits for Stax Records in the 60's, and her brother is keyboardist Marvell Thomas, who played on numerous Stax recordings and is still in high demand today. The younger Ms. Thomas left Memphis for NYC and became a session vocalist/producer/arranger/songwriter of a variety of musical stars, even releasing several albums of her own since the late 80's.
Her new release pays tribute to the music of her youth, a direct result of her time spent over the past few years teaching music studies at CCNY and her previous album, which was an homage to many of soul music's most prominent female singers. She covers a lot of ground with her versatile vocals, moving from country blues to R&B to southern soul to urban blues. She even delivers a swampy take on John Fogerty's "The Old Man Down The Road" that almost outdoes the original, and sings a duet with sister Carla, but the real highlight is a "duet" featuring Thomas with her late father, a la Nat and Natalie Cole, which borrows the vocal from a 1962 Rufus Thomas track. I think Mr. Thomas would be proud of his daughter's latest release. It's a great slice of Memphis soul and blues.