Friday, December 28, 2012

Four Discs You Probably Didn't Miss

I was going to do my annual Top Discs You Might Have Missed post this week, but I realized that I've already covered most of those discs you might have missed in previous posts this year, so if you're really loyal FBFers, you really shouldn't have missed them, right?  With that in mind, this week, Friday Blues Fix will do a few capsule reviews of discs that you probably didn't miss.  As always, full reviews of these releases can be found either in past or upcoming issues of Blues Bytes.

Michael "Iron Man" Burks - Show of Strength (Alligator Records):  I've seen the word "bittersweet" come up an awful lot with this release.  That's not the way Michael Burks would want this to be remembered.  Instead, remember it just like you remember his previous four releases, as an incredible set of powerhouse blues that Burks poured every ounce of blood, sweat and grit into creating.  The guitar work was as phenomenal as ever and the vocals here rank with his best.

I miss the big man greatly and regret that we will never get the opportunity to hear more music from him, but I can't call this bittersweet, even the last song, a fantastic cover of Charlie Rich's "Feel Like Goin' Home" leaves you smiling wistfully.  It's just too good a set to leave you with sad feelings.  Say what you will about his tragic passing, but I think even his biggest fans agree that Michael Burks left nothing on the table when he departed for Blues Heaven.  If you've heard this, more than likely you will agree.

Magic Slim & the Teardrops - Bad Boy (Blind Pig):  You know what you're getting with the Magic Man with few exceptions.  Bad Boy is no exception.  Nobody does the traditional Chicago blues as well as Magic Slim....he lives and breathes them.  He still has those ferocious growling vocals and that guitar that sounds like its strung with barbed wire. 

As on previous releases, the Human Jukebox tears through an inspired set of covers that includes the Eddie Taylor-penned title track, Denise LaSalle's "Someone Else is Steppin' In," Detroit Jr.'s "I Got Money," Muddy Waters' "Champagne & Reefer," Roy Brown's "Hard Luck Blues," and Albert King's "Matchbox Blues," as diverse as set as he's ever tackled, but he makes them all sound like his own.   Slim's own tunes (three of them) hold up well with the covers and the Teardrops are as solid a backing core as ever.  If you're a Magic Slim fan, you probably have this already.  If not, well...what are you waiting for?

Gary Clark, Jr. -  Blak and Blu (Warner Bros. Records):  Clark's star has been on the rise for the past five years.  He had a major part in John Sayles' 2007 film, Honeydripper (which we reviewed here) and was selected by Eric Clapton to be a part of his 2010 Crossroads Guitar Festival.  Clark's appearance on the Crossroads DVD led to his signing with Warner Bros., which led to his well-received EP last year and to this release, which is making a lot of noise and climbing up the charts.  Some of the noise is good (blues artists making good, earning wider popularity, etc....) and some is not so good (blues artist sells out for larger audience, etc...).  We've heard all this before with other blues artists in the past who have gained mainstream popularity.

Over the past few years, Clark's been compared to Hendrix and SRV a lot, and while I do see similarities, there's more to Clark's talent.  He's an amazing guitarist, no doubt, but he also has a real knack for songwriting and is a gifted singer.  With Blak and Blu, the blues is present on every track, without a doubt, but he also mixes plenty of hard rock, old-school soul, funk, and even a bit of hip-hop.  With that said, you can safely say that Clark has the talent to not only appeal to older blues fans, but also to newly arrived blues fans, which is really what a new blues artists needs to do to keep the music fresh and vital.  If this is what the future of the blues will look like, I have no problem at all with it.

Buddy Guy - Live at Legends (Jive/Silvertone Records):  I don't know....maybe I expect too much of Buddy Guy.  But then, when you're recognized as blues royalty, the bar should be pretty high.  Over the years, he's released recordings that have exceeded that bar comfortably, but then there's also been a few that didn't come close.  I think when he's inspired to do so, he's capable of turning out some incredible work, but sometimes, it's more like he's going through the motions. 

On this set, one of the last live appearances he made at Legends' old Windy City location a couple of years ago, he's pretty inspired, ripping through a fairly strong, but standard set of tunes from his more recent releases (including the perennial crowd pleaser, "Damn Right I Got The Blues"), plus a smoldering version of Muddy Waters' "I Just Want To Make Love To You."  However, the live set only clocks in at about 35 or so minutes and about seven or eight of is spent on a couple of "medleys" blending Hendrix, Clapton, John Lee Hooker tunes, which is not bad in itself, but I would much rather hear Buddy Guy do "Buddy Guy" than Hendrix and Clapton, or at least flesh these versions out a little bit more.  A lot of his fans probably won't mind what's done here, but I do.  In any event, the brevity of the set works against it a bit to me.

Also included are three studio outtakes from the Living Proof sessions that were done shortly after this live set.  They are first rate, especially the funky "Coming At You," co-written by Delbert McClinton, and a really inspired version of Waters' "Country Boy," where Guy revisits his roots in a big way.

I have to admit that I was a bit puzzled by this disc because it seems to be a more-or-less run of the mill portion of a live date padded by a few studio tracks.  It could have actually been released to coincide with Guy receiving the Kennedy Center Honors this week.  As stated above, maybe I expect too much of Buddy Guy, but in my opinion, this should be better.  For his loyal fans, it should keep them satisfied until his upcoming new disc, slated for a 2013 release.

Before we go, check out the nominees for the upcoming Blues Music Awards (BMA's) later in the Spring....a most impressive list.

34th Blues Music Award Nominees

Acoustic Album
Billy Boy Arnold Sings Big Bill Broonzy - Billy Boy Arnold
Blues on Solid Ground - John Primer 
Deeper in the Well - Eric Bibb
Not Alone - Ann Rabson w/ Bob Margolin
Talking Guitar - Paul Rishell

Acoustic Artist
Carolina Chocolate Drops
Doug MacLeod
Eric Bibb
Harrison Kennedy
Paul Rishell

And Still I Rise - Heritage Blues Orchestra
Double Dynamite - The Mannish Boys
Show of Strength - Michael Burks
Son of the Seventh Son - Mud Morganfield
Stronger For It - Janiva Magness 

B.B. King Entertainer
Curtis Salgado
Janiva Magness
Joe Louis Walker
John Nemeth
Rick Estrin

Lil' Ed & the Blues Imperials
Phantom Blues Band
Rick Estrin & the Nightcats
Tedeschi Trucks Band
The Mannish Boys

Best New Artist Debut
24 Hour Blues - Charles "CD" Davis
They Call Me Big Llou - Big LLou Johnson
Turning on the Naughty - Paula Harris
Uphill from Anywhere - Brad Hatfield
Wanna Feel Somethin' - Mary Bridget Davies 

Contemporary Blues Album
Blak & Blu - Gary Clark, Jr.
Blues Live - John Nemeth
Candy Store Kid - Ian Siegal & the Mississippi Mudbloods
Hellfire - Joe Louis Walker
Show of Strength - Michael Burks
Stronger For It - Janiva Magness

Contemporary Blues Female Artist
Bettye LaVette
Janiva Magness
Shakura S'Aida
Shemekia Copeland
Susan Tedeschi

Contemporary Blues Male Artist
Gary Clark, Jr.
Joe Louis Walker
Michael Burks
Robert Cray
Tab Benoit

Blackbird Music/55 for Arts Club Production for The Lucky Peterson Band feat. Tamara Peterson: Live at the 55 Arts Club Berlin by Lucky Peterson 
Cat Head Delta Blues & Folk Art/Broke & Hungry Records for We Juke Up in Here! Mississippi's Juke Joint Culture at the Crossroads
Delta Groove Music for That's My Thing - Elvin Bishop Live in Concert by Elvin Bishop
Eagle Rock Entertainment for Live at Checkerboard Lounge by Muddy Waters & The Rolling Stones
J&R Adventures for Beacon Theatre - Live from New York by Joe Bonamassa

Gibson Guitar
Derek Trucks
Joe Bonamassa
Joe Louis Walker
Kid Andersen
Michael Burks

Historical Album
Bear Family Records for Plug It In! Turn It Up! Electric Blues by Various Artists
Real Gone Music for Complete Hit Singles A's & B's by Little Willie John 
Rock Beat Records for Raw Blues: Magic Sam Live 1969 by Magic Sam 
Silk City Records for Someday... by Otis Spann 
Universal Music Group for Ladies & Gentlemen... Mr. B.B. King by B.B. King

Cedric Burnside
Cody Dickinson
Jimi Bott
Kenny Smith
Tony Braunagel

Bill Stuve
Bob Stroger
Patrick Rynn
Richard Cousins
Scot Sutherland
Willie J. Campbell

Billy Boy Arnold
Bob Corritore
John Nemeth
Kim Wilson
Mark Hummel
Rick Estrin

Al Basile
Big James Montgomery
Eddie Shaw
Sax Gordon
Terry Hanck

Koko Taylor Award (Traditional Blues Female)
Diunna Greenleaf
Jewel Brown
Maria Muldaur
Ruthie Foster
Tracy Nelson

Pinetop Perkins Piano Player
Barrelhouse Chuck
Chuck Leavell
David Maxwell
Deanna Bogart
Mike Finnigan
Victor Wainwright

Rock Blues Album
Blues for the Modern Daze - Walter Trout
Driving Towards the Daylight - Joe Bonamassa
Everybody's Talkin' - Tedeschi Trucks Band
Here I Am - Nick Moss
Royal Southern Brotherhood - Royal Southern Brotherhood 

"I Won't Cry"- Janiva Magness & Dave Darling - Stronger for It - Janiva Magness
"Lemon Pie"- John Hahn & Oliver Wood - 33 1/3 - Shemekia Copeland 
“She Didn’t Cut Me Loose” written by Curtis Salgado, Marlon McClain & Dave Duncan on Soul Shot by Curtis Salgado
“The Devil Ain't Got No Music” written by Matthew Skoller on The Devil Ain't Got No Music by Lurrie Bell
"Too Much Jesus (Not Enough Whiskey)" written by Sam McClain & Pat Herlehy on Too Much Jesus (Not Enough Whiskey) by Mighty Sam McClain

Soul Blues Album
Blues Heart - Dorothy Moore
Soul Live - John Nemeth 
Soul Shot - Curtis Salgado
Soul Survivor - Johnny Rawls
Too Much Jesus (Not Enough Whiskey) - Mighty Sam McClain

Soul Blues Female Artist
Barbara Carr
Denise LaSalle
Dorothy Moore
Irma Thomas
Sista Monica

Soul Blues Male Artist
Bobby Rush
Curtis Salgado
John Nemeth
Johnny Rawls
Mighty Sam McClain

Traditional Blues Album
And Still I Rise - Heritage Blues Orchestra
Double Dynamite - The Mannish Boys
Milton Hopkins with Jewel Brown - Milton Hopkins with Jewel Brown
Son of the Seventh Son - Mud Morganfield
Spider Eating Preacher - Eddie C. Campbell

Traditional Blues Male Artist
Bob Margolin
John Primer
Lil' Ed
Magic Slim
Mud Morganfield

That's all for now.  Friday Blues Fix hopes everyone has a happy and safe 2013.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Blues Brothers - Eddie and Jimmy Burns

Jimmy and Eddie Burns
As far as Detroit blues men go, there was only one who ranked above Eddie "Guitar" Burns, who died last week at the age of 84......John Lee Hooker.  Burns' career started in the 1940's and spanned seven decades.  He started playing harmonica, but soon moved to guitar, earning the "Guitar" nickname in the process.  Burns' younger brother, Jimmy got his start in Chicago in the 60's, specializing in soul and R&B-based blues, but soon gave up the blues to marry and raise his family, opening and operating a barbecue stand for many years before resurfacing in the early 90's.  Though the brothers' styles were somewhat different, Eddie playing more old school urban blues and Jimmy mixing blues and R&B influences, their styles meshed together very well when they did get the opportunity to record together.

Eddie Burns was born in Belzoni, MS on February 8, 1928.  His father worked as a sharecropper, but also played music and gambled on the side.  Burns was raised mostly by his grandparents, who owned a record player and some 78s of artists like Sonny Boy Williamson I, Jazz Gillum, Big Bill Broonzy, Memphis Slim, Walter Davis, Lil Green, and Burns' favorite, Tommy McClennan.  McClennan and Williamson were Burns' biggest influences as a musician.  While the first Williamson inspired Burns on record, the second Sonny Boy Williamson inspired Burns to start playing the harmonica after the youngster caught a Williamson performance.

Eddie Burns
Burns migrated to Iowa to work for the Illinois Central railroad, but left work shortly and fell in with guitarist John T. Smith, who had also recently quit the railroad in Waterloo, Iowa.  Burns recalled in a Living Blues interview from 2001 that Smith didn't have a capo for his guitar, so he used a pencil tied with string around the neck, which was apparently a common practice at the time.  Smith met a woman from Detroit who was vacationing in Waterloo, and she ended up taking him  back to Detroit with her, with Burns following close behind.

Burns and Smith ended up recording in Detroit, thanks to some help from John Lee Hooker, in 1948.  Burns' first single was for Palda Records, "Notoriety Woman."  By the next year, Burns had started playing guitar and was backing Hooker on guitar on several of Hooker's singles.

While his brother was beginning to make a name for himself on the Detroit blues scene, younger brother Jimmy, born in Dublin, MS on February 27, 1943, was a five-year-old, who would soon be working the fields, picking cotton and sharecropping with his parents.  By the time Jimmy Burns was old enough to really be aware of his surrounding, his brother Eddie, 15 years older, had moved out.  The two actually didn't develop a real relationship until Jimmy moved to Chicago with his parents in 1955.  From that point, they would visit each other a couple of times a year and rarely even discussed music when they were together.

Jimmy Burns
Jimmy Burns picked up guitar on his own as a teen.  He started playing on a diddley bow, but soon graduated to a regular guitar that someone had loaned to his mother.  He was influenced by artists like Muddy Waters and John Lee Hooker (at the time, Burns didn't realize that his older brother was playing with Hooker).  Gospel music was also a big influence, as Burns sang in church regularly and was also a part of a singing group, The Medallionaires, who recorded in the early 50's, and backed other musicians like Jimmie Lee Robinson.  The Medallionaires performed regularly around Chicago at the R&B revues and also at various record hops during the 50's.

Eddie  Burns
During the 50's, Eddie Burns recorded sparingly, supporting himself as a mechanic, but what he did record was first-rate.  He recorded for DeLuxe ("Hello Miss Jessie Lee"), Checker ("Biscuit Baking Mama"), J-V-B ("Dont'cha Leave Me Baby") and Chess ("Jinglin' Baby") during the 50's, sometimes venturing into R&B territory.  By the early 60's, he had hooked up with Harvey Fuqua's Harvey Records, including "Orange Driver" and "Hard Hearted Woman," both of which featured backing on drums by a young Marvin Gaye.  He also appeared on John Lee Hooker's Chess release, The Real Folk Blues, in the mid 60's, and during this time picked up the nickname Eddie "Guitar" Burns.

In the early 70's, Eddie Burns embarked on a European tour and released an album, Bottle It Up and Go, which was recorded in England, in 1972.  He also made an appearance at the Ann Arbor Blues and Jazz Festival the next year and returned to Europe in the mid 70's.  His track, "Orange Driver," was recorded by The J. Geils Band in 1975.  Burns didn't record again until 1989, when he released Detroit on the Blue Suit label.  An excellent representation of his talents, Detroit allowed Burns to play guitar and harmonica, and was reissued by Evidence Records in the late 90's.

Jimmy Burns
During the 60's, Jimmy Burns began participating in the Chicago folk scene, playing guitar but not playing much blues.  Mid-decade, he recorded several soul singles for labels like USA, Minit, Tip Top, and Erica.  He traveled the Midwest with a band called the Fantastic Epics, opening for Jeff Beck and the Yardbirds.  Later, he formed his own band, Jimmy Burns and the Gas Company, in the late 60's.

In the 70's, however, Burns put his music career on the backburner, choosing to focus on raising his family and running his own barbecue stand, Uncle Mickey's, though he continued to perform at various venues around the Windy City, focusing on soul music, but slowly gravitating toward blues by the end of the decade, after hearing Carey and Lurrie Bell perform.

In the 90's, after his family had grown up, Jimmy Burns began a long residency playing the blues at the Smokedaddy Club in Chicago.  From there, he drew the attention of Delmark Records' owner, Bob Koester, who decided to record him after hearing just one set.  It proved to be a good decision, as Burns' debut recording in 1996, Leaving Here Walking, won a boatload of acclaim and awards, including Best Blues Record of the Year from the National Association of Independent Record Distributors, and the French Academie Du Jazz's Big Bill Broonzy Award, and was nominated for two Blues Music Awards as well.  One of the highlights was the lengthy, tension-filled title cut, which opened the disc.

Burns followed up Leaving Here Walking with two other excellent Delmark studio releases (1999's Night Time Again and 2003's Back to the Delta) and a live CD/DVD recorded at B.L.U.E.S. in Chicago in 2007.  In 2011, he released an independent CD called Stuck In The Middle, that has also been widely acclaimed.

In 2002, the brothers joined forces for Eddie Burns' Delmark release, Snake Eyes.  Recorded just a couple of days after the 9/11 attacks, it featured Eddie Burns' plaintive vocals, guitar, and harmonica, with Jimmy Burns providing backing on electric and acoustic guitar, and even joining in on vocals for the rowdy Charles Calhoun hit, "Your Cash Ain't Nothin' But Trash."  Though primarily an disc of Detroit-based blues, the Chicago influence is also present, thanks to Koester's peerless production and a tight rhythm section of Roosevelt Purifoy (keyboards), Larry Taylor (drums), and Nick Charles (bass).

Eddie Burns recorded one final disc, Second Degree Burns, in 2005, and remained active as a performer until 2008, when his health began failing.  He died from heart failure last week on December 12.  Though his recorded output is very slim, what Eddie Burns did, both recording and performing live, served as an influence to many Detroit area musicians and the recordings are worth a listen.

Fortunately, Jimmy and Eddie Burns not only were able to build a strong personal relationship over time, but they also were able to form a musical partnership in the process.  Though each man's approach to the music came from different directions, they were able to bring it all together with satisfying results.  I strongly recommend all of Eddie Burns' raw and ragged urban Detroit blues and Jimmy's smooth, soulful Chicago blues releases.  You won't be disappointed with any of it.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Bayou Lightnin' - The Blues of Lonnie Brooks

When I first started listening to the blues, a lot of the music that I listened to came from Alligator Records, which was only natural at the time.  Alligator's LP's, cassettes, and CD's were pretty easy to find in most record stores and their slogan, "Genuine Houserockin' Music," certainly was an appropriate one.  For someone moving toward the blues from the rock arena, the electric guitars and the rock-mixed rhythm sections were definitely an attractive quality.  Their roster of Chicago musicians (Son Seals, Hound Dog Taylor, Koko Taylor), along with some of Texas' finest (Albert Collins, Fenton Robinson), plus a few seasoned blues/rock vets (Johnny Winter, Lonnie Mack, Roy Buchanan) was a formidable one.

One of the first performers from Alligator that caught my attention was Lonnie Brooks.  He was a perfect fit in the "Genuine Houserockin' Music" line-up.  With his Louisiana roots, he was able to combine the best of the Swamp blues and pop of the 50's and 60's with the best of the Chicago sound, mixed with a little bit of country, and create his own distinctive sound, which still sounds as vital today as it did in the late 60's.  He's one of the few blues artists who rated his own article in Rolling Stone.  He's appeared on Hee Haw, done commercials in the U.K. and had songs featured in several movies.

Lonnie Brooks' brand of blues didn't, and doesn't, really sound like anybody else's.  It wasn't just Louisiana blues, it wasn't Chicago blues, it wasn't swamp blues, it wasn't R&B or soul.....It was Lonnie Brooks, through and through.

Brooks was born Lee Baker, Jr., on December 18, 1933, in Dubuisson, Louisiana.  He learned to play banjo from his grandfather as a youth, but didn't even start playing guitar seriously until he was in his early 20's, and by then, he was living in Port Arthur, TX.  It was in Port Arthur that Baker heard artists like Clarence Gatemouth Brown, T-Bone Walker, B.B. King, and Long John Hunter.  Pretty soon, he was able to pick up some of King's and Hunter's guitar licks and he attracted the attention of Clifton Chenier, who invited Baker to join his touring band.  This lasted until Chenier decided to record on the West Coast and Baker opted to stay in Port Arthur to continue working his day job.

By the late 50's, young Baker had embarked on a solo career, recording for Goldband Records as "Guitar Junior."  He issued the big regional hit, "Family Rules," which is still a favorite of the swamp pop genre.  Other familiar tunes include "The Crawl," "Roll Roll Roll," and "Pick Me Up On Your Way Down."

Hungry for more success, Baker moved to Chicago, where he found out there was another "Guitar Junior" (Luther Johnson) and where he also found out his Gulf Coast brand of blues wasn't what was hot.  He learned a whole new brand of blues in the Windy City, recording as a session guitarist for Vee-Jay (playing guitar on Jimmy Reed's "Big Boss Man"), and cutting a series of singles (mostly R&B-based) for multiple labels in the 60's.

It was also during this time that Baker  recorded two singles for Mercury Records, "The Horse" and "All of My Life," changing his name to Lonnie Brooks in the process, but also recording an album as Guitar Junior for Capitol in 1969, Broke and Hungry, which sunk without a trace, taking the nickname with it.

In the 70's, Brooks participated in a European tour, recording an album for Black & Blue while overseas, then he settled in a regular gig at Pepper's Hideout in Chicago.  It was at Pepper's that he  attracted the attention of Bruce Iglauer, head of Alligator Records, who placed four of Brooks' tunes (including "Two Headed Man") on his 1978 anthology series, Living Chicago Blues.  This was followed closely by Brooks' debut recording for Alligator, Bayou Lightning, in 1979.  The album was well-received and Brooks' brand of blues, mixing Chicago blues with Texas and Louisiana Swamp blues and R&B, began drawing a large following.

Since then, Brooks has recorded six additional solo efforts for Alligator, plus a recording with Hunter and Phillip Walker.  Each album has its own charms, with great songs like "Eyeballin'," "Got Lucky Last Night," and "End of the Rope."  His album, Wound Up Tight, is one of his most popular and featured Brooks with longtime Brooks fan Johnny Winter.  The wonderful collaboration with Hunter and Walker, titled Lone Star Shootout, is something of a Gulf Coast sequel to Alligator's previous three-way effort, Showdown!  To date, it is the last recording that Brooks has released, though he's appeared on other recordings by other blues artists.

Today, at 78 years old (79 next week on December 18), he remains one of the Blues' biggest attractions, appearing at festivals and in clubs either with his own band, or with his sons' (Wayne Baker Brooks and Ronnie Baker Brooks) bands as The Brooks Family.  A master showman, he has given no signs of slowing down any time soon.

Selected Discography:

Wound Up Tight (Alligator):  My favorite of Brooks' albums for Alligator, though Bayou Lightning comes in a close second.  This disc fits the Alligator slogan better than any of his others.  Johnny Winter guests on a couple of tracks, including the tightly wound title track, and the rowdy opening cut, "Got Lucky Last Night," a second cousin of sorts to Brooks' early hit, "The Crawl."  The rest of the disc is equally strong.  Like all of Brooks' Alligator catalog, this disc features a wide variety of blues, all well done.

Deluxe Edition (Alligator):  This captures some of Brooks' finest moments for Alligator, featuring tracks from all of his recordings, covering a wide range of his catalog.  Really, if you like this disc, and you should, you would be well-served to check out his other recordings for the label.  Brooks' brand of "voodoo blues" is unique and original and all first-rate quality.

The Crawl (Charly):  This is a collection of Brooks', recording as Guitar Junior, sides for Goldband from the late 50's...heavy on the swamp blues sound, which mixed blues, country, and rock and roll seamlessly at its best.  Brooks mastered the sound pretty quickly and later blended this sound with his Chicago-based sound with successful results.  Brooks later recreated a couple of these tracks on several Alligator albums, including Lone Star Shootout.

Lone Star Shootout (Alligator) (with Long John Hunter and Phillip Walker):  This is a highly enjoyable set with Brooks reprising several early hits and trading licks with two of Texas's finest guitarists.  Hunter had just achieved a measure of success due to a successful release on tiny Spindletop Records, which resulted in a deal with Alligator.  Walker, like Brooks a former Clifton Chenier guitarist, had a journeyman-like career of impressive consistency. This recording is a high point for all three men.  Local legend Ervin Charles is also featured on a couple of tracks.

Friday, December 7, 2012

New Blues For You - Special Christmas Edition

As a public service, this week's Friday Blues Fix will offer a few suggestions on what to give that dedicated blues fan in your family that's nearly impossible to buy for.  Therefore, this week's post will be a combination of New Blues You Might Have Missed for Christmas.  As always, these selections have or soon will be featured in expanded versions in an upcoming edition of Blues Bytes.

Milton Hopkins & Jewel Brown (Dialtone Records):  If you're not familiar with Dialtone Records, you're missing out on some fantastic recordings featuring some of the living legends of Gulf Coast blues and R&B from the 50's onward.  The label has released some excellent recordings over the past couple of decades and this one is no exception.  78 year-old guitarist extraordinaire Hopkins has performed with sax man Grady Gaines in Little Richard's early band, the Upsetters (one of the most in-demand rock/R&B bands of the 50's), Gatemouth Brown, and enjoyed a nine year stint as B.B. King's rhythm guitarist.  74 year-old vocalist Brown once turned down an opportunity to tour Europe with Lionel Hampton (she was still in high school), but later served as Louis Armstrong's featured vocalist for eight years.

Dialtone came up with the great idea of teaming these two up for an album and the results are outstanding.  Brown's sassy and smart vocals are an endless pleasure and Hopkins shows a deft touch on guitar, both electric and acoustic (his cousin was country blues legend Lightnin' Hopkins). The songs are mostly traditional fare, ranging from a reggae-flavored "Jerry" (a holdover from Brown's days with Armstrong), "There's A Light," a smooth gospel number, and an acoustic tribute to Lightnin' Hopkins (Milton's cousin).  Hopkins also contributes several tasteful instrumentals that blur the line between blues and jazz.  This is a nice, smooth, laidback set that is somewhat reminiscent of the 90's recordings from fellow Texans Carol Fran and Clarence Hollimon.  Hopkins and Brown are talented, versatile performers who still have a lot to offer.

Check out this and the rest of Dialtone's superlative catalog.  You will be rewarded with some fine listening if you do.

Willie Buck - Cell Phone Man (Delmark):  By now, you've probably determined that I'm a traditional blues type of guy.  I didn't start out that way, but slowly moved in that direction.  Great recordings like this one are major factors in that move.  Willie Buck has been a longtime fixture on the Chicago blues scene, mostly as a weekend warrior while toiling away as an auto mechanic during weekdays.  He fell in love with the blues as a youth, when a relative smuggled him into a Muddy Waters show.

His new release includes several songs associated with Waters and his crack back-up band, the Rockin' Johnny Band, capture the feel of 50's era Chess blues perfectly.  However, though Buck's vocals are influenced by Waters, he is very much is own man and is also a pretty good songwriter, too, writing songs in both the blues and R&B vein.  This is as good a set as they used to do in the 50's, updated to a certain degree to cover modern subjects (see the title track).  Judging by this effort, Willie Buck has been criminally under-recorded over his career.  Kudos to Delmark for addressing that problem and hopefully we will hear more from Buck in the future.

Randy Kaplan - Mr. Diddie Wah Diddie (myKazoo Music):  Every blues fan wants to share the music they love with as many people as possible.  Thanks to Randy Kaplan, the blues can be shared with children.  Kaplan is a renowned children's performer who spent two years putting together this project.  Not only is this disc child-friendly, adults will find a lot to enjoy, too.  It's not only  a lot of fun to listen to, it's also loaded with lots of information about the history of the blues and many of the pioneers who helped develop it.

Kaplan is joined on this CD by several kids of various ages, who sing along, ask questions, and tease and cajole him throughout.  There's also a "narrator" of sorts, named Lightnin' Bodkins, who provides info about the artists mentioned, offers fascinating tidbits about the music itself, and tries to figure out a suitable blues name for Kaplan.  Kaplan also "adjusts" some of the lyrics to make them a little more suitable for kids ("In the Jailhouse Now" becomes "In a Timeout Now," "Kindhearted Woman Blues" becomes "Kindhearted Babysitter Blues," etc....).  The liner notes are 20 pages long and fills in details about the songs featured and the artists associated with them.  Even though this is designed for kids, I found this very enjoyable and even learned a few things that I didn't know in the process.  Chances are that you might, too.

Elvin Bishop - That's My Thing:  Elvin Bishop Live in Concert (Delta Groove Music):  This DVD was past due.  Bishop has been playing the blues for over 50 years, generally doing it his way, occasionally even venturing into pop territory ("Fooled Around and Fell In Love," with Mickey Thomas on vocals), and  always doing it with a wink and a smile.  This DVD captures Bishop performing at Club Fox in Redwood City, CA around this time last year, backed by an excellent band.  The 96-minute concert features Bishop performing some of his fan favorites, like "Calling All Cows," "Travelin' Shoes," "Rock My Soul," "Gettin' My Groove Back," and "Party 'Til the Cows Come Home."  He's his usual amazing self on guitar, but the DVD also shows his easy rapport with his audience (even the hecklers) and his wry, self-effacing sense of humor.

There's also a 20-minute interview with Bishop that's definitely worth watching.  He talks about his rough beginnings in Iowa in a house with no electricity and running water, his learning to play the blues while living in Chicago, his success as a solo artist in the 70's, and his later and current career.  He mixes in several entertaining stories in the process.  If you're an Elvin Bishop fan, this DVD is an essential purchase.

Heroes of the Blues (Card Set),  By Robert Crumb and Stephen Calt:  Sometime after I started listening to the blues in the late 80's, I was browsing in a record store in search of some new music.  I wasn't having much luck, so I was about to leave empty-handed when I stumbled onto this in the musical accessory section, next to the harmonicas.  I was more familiar with Robert Crumb than I was the artists listed on the back of the box, all early pre-war blues singers and musicians, but I decided to give it a shot.  Included in this 36 card set are Crumb's renditions of each artists with a brief biography written by Stephen Calt on the back.

Calt, who passed away in 2010, was a source of controversy for many blues scholars, who felt he interjected his opinion into his work too often, and sometimes was fast and loose with facts.  Personally, I don't really know that much about his work other than a few sets of liner notes and these cards, but he plays it pretty straight on these (though there's not much room to do otherwise).  Crumb's artwork is excellent.  Besides this set of blues legends, he also did card sets for early jazz greats and early country music greats, so these were a labor of love for him and it shows.

These cards were an indispensable source of information for me as a fledgling blues fan.  Calt also listed recommended albums for each artists, most of which were available at Yazoo Records.  I started picking up recordings by many of these artists, many of which were featured on Yazoo's many anthology sets, collecting multiple artists from the same region and time period.  This led me to discover even more great music from more wonderful sources, and chances are that the blues fan in your family will be able to do the same thing if they get their hands on this set.

Hopefully, we've given you a few ideas for Christmas gifts for your blues-loving family and friends of all ages.  You won't be disappointed with any of these items if you choose to pick them up.