Friday, October 31, 2014

New Blues For You - Fall, 2014 Edition (Part 2)

Friday Blues Fix wishes everyone a Happy Halloween!  Even though we're still battling computer issues, this week, we continue our look at some of the fall's best new CD releases on the blues scene.  Over the next few weeks, we will also devote full posts to a couple of new discs.....there are so many good ones hitting the be on the lookout for those.  In the meantime, here are a few mini-reviews to whet your appetite.  As always, full reviews of these discs are, or will be, available at THE blues CD review site, Blues Bytes.  Stay tuned, because we will be looking at many more new releases over the coming weeks.

Rory Block - Hard Luck Child:  A Tribute to Skip James (Stony Plain Records):  I have enjoyed all of the previous albums in Block's Blues Mentor series (Son House, Mississippi Fred McDowell, Rev. Gary Davis, and Mississippi John Hurt), but this one is my favorite of the bunch.  I'm a huge fan of Skip James (no surprise to longtime visitors), and this is a wonderful tribute to the man and his talents.  Block actually got to meet him when he was in the hospital, as he battled the cancer that would eventually take his life, and she got a glimpse of the complex man behind this complex music.  She does a wonderful job interpreting some of James' best-known songs......her guitar playing is impeccable as always and it (along with her vocals) really captures the spirit of the music......the heartache and despair that was often a part of James' life.  His music wasn't always easy listening for the uninitiated, but Block does a great job of opening it up for new listeners, who should want to hear more from both artists after listening to this fine effort.

Fo' Reel - Heavy Water:  This project was conceived by guitarist Mark Domizio (Bryan Lee) and includes legendary soul singer C.P. Love and keyboard wizard Johnny Neel (Allmans, Gov't Mule, Dickey Betts) among its members.  Their specialty is Louisiana-styled blues, R&B, and funk.  The band is tight and knows how to funk things up.  They also venture into Memphis-styled soul ("Breaking Up Somebody's Home") and they've got a talented pair of singers (Love and Rick Lawson) who are up to the challenge.  There's also a dandy pair of Luther Allison covers, a couple of tunes that are reminiscent of 70's era Tower of Power, and two instrumentals that move from blues to jazz.  These guys do everything well, and it's all seasoned with that New Orleans flavor.  This is a nice debut release and will leave you wanting to hear more from these guys soon.

The Duke Robillard Band - Calling All Blues! (Stony Plain Records):  Robillard's latest release looks at the many facets of American blues and roots music and their places of origin.  There are several tracks that reflect a Memphis influence, a few with Texas leanings, and even a few wild cards thrown in (Robillard plays Turkish saz on one track, backed by a kitchen-sink-array of percussion instruments).  Throughout, the Duke mixes in plenty of his tasteful guitar work, as always mixing a healthy dose of jazz and swing flavor into his classic blues sound.  Robillard never disappoints and this disc is no exception.  He is in fine form and he gets great support from his longtime band mates and singer Sunny Crownover, who takes the mic for one tune, as does keyboard player Bruce Bears.  This is one of Robillard's best releases, which is really saying something.

Liz Mandeville - Heart 'O' Chicago (Blue Kitty Music):  Chicago blues singer Shirley Johnson asked Mandeville to write a few songs for her upcoming album a couple of years ago.  While composing, Mandeville got on a roll and ended up writing 19 songs, deciding to use 11 of them on her own CD, which is a fantastic collection of Chicago-styled soul, R&B, and blues.  Backed by a veteran band that includes singer Charlie Love, sax legend Eddie Shaw, and harp master Billy Branch, Mandeville has released one of her finest albums yet.  She sounds great on these songs, showing a lot of range with a variety of styles, and her songwriting, which covers traditional blues-related issues with a modern touch, is good enough that you will probably be hearing others cover these songs in the near future.  Mandeville says in the liner notes that she loves Chicago blues and soul, and this release backs her up 100%.

Kirby Sewell Band - Girl With a New Tattoo (Smelly Cat Records):  This five-piece Canadian band really put a hop in my step with this release.  Lead singer Sewell is loaded with soul, grit, and  charisma, and the band is just powerhouse, moving ably from blues to soul to country to rock.  The whole disc has a real 70's vibe.  Remember when a band would mix these various styles on the same album and nobody tried to pigeonhole them into one format or was just good music that everyone enjoyed?  That's what this CD reminds me of, and chances are pretty good that you will feel the same way.....if you remember the 70's anyway.  Regardless, it's a great CD and I look forward to hearing more from them.

Rob Stone - Gotta Keep Rollin' (VizzTone):  Fans of the classic Chicago blues can't go wrong with any of Stone's releases.  The harmonica player has released four consistently fine release, culminating in this most recent effort, his VizzTone debut.  He's backed by his longtime band, which includes guitarist Chris James and bassist Patrick Rynn, who are also contributing mightily to keeping the Windy City blues alive and vital with a couple of fine releases of their own, plus guest appearances from Eddie Shaw on sax and keyboard studs Henry Gray and Dave Maxwell.  This well-rounded set is half fairly obscure covers and half originals, and I promise you won't be able to tell which is which....the originals are that good.  Fans who like the old school sounds with a nice contemporary flair will really enjoy this CD from an artist who deserves to be better known.

Kettles / Eno - The Jake Leg Chronicles (Indian Proud Entertainment):  You really need to give this one a listen.  It's a collaboration between Steed Kettles and Jeff Eno, both veterans of a couple of fabled Atlanta bands (Skin n Bones and Liberty Jones).  There's a little bit of everything here, from southern rock and soul to folk to roots to Americana, but it is all rooted in the blues.  With songs about falling in love and out of love, bad fortune, injustice, despair, and inspiration, most of us listeners, especially the ones down south, will have little difficulty relating to most of these songs.  It's not all heavy either, with a few songs that will tickle your funny bone, too.  The best description of The Jake Leg Chronicles would "Everyman Southern Rock."  It's really good stuff.

Sista Jean & CB - Spectacular 2-Song Double Pack (Freckled Bandit Records):  If you missed this duo's previous release from a couple of years ago, Back to the Root, you need to backtrack and give it a listen.  Fellow FBF'er Sista Jean (Jean McClain) combined her soulful vocals with CB's (Carlyle Barriteau) dazzling acoustic guitar were a wonderful combination (we discussed it here).  This 2-song EP will give you a taste of their upcoming album, a tribute to Odetta, one of McClain's musical idols, and should satisfy their fans until the new release hits the stores.  Both of the songs on this EP were done by Odetta (and also Leadbelly) back in the day, and they will not be on the future CD, so if you want to hear these songs, this is the only way to get them.  Based on these two tracks, I am eagerly awaiting the full album in March of 2015.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Still Hanging in There

I'm still waiting for my computer to come off Injured Reserve, so this week's offering is a bit of a piecemeal post mostly working off a borrowed tablet, which I'm still learning to operate, so bear with me.  Call this a mini-post for the week and hopefully in the coming weeks, when all is back to normal on the technology front, you can look forward to a couple more New Blues For You - Autumn Edition posts, a report on an upcoming performance from a blues icon that yours truly is supposed to be attending, a profile on a blues legend who is still going strong, and, hopefully, a couple of Ten Questions With.....subjects that will be required viewing.  In the meantime......

If you call yourself a blues fan at all, you really need to pick up the latest issue of Living Blues.  It's a double-sized issue about the Mississippi Blues Trail that takes you through five regions of the state, looking at each of the 100+ blues markers, musical venues, festivals, gravesites, great restaurants, and other items of interest in each area.  This is an extensive, comprehensive list.....not just the touristy stuff......this is the REAL DEAL Mississippi Blues scene.  The magazine is also available as a digital download, complete with musical playlists as suggested in the magazine.  Go to Living Blueswebsite for more information, but trust really need to get your hands on this issue.  It contains everything you need to know about the blues and blues culture in Mississippi.

It occurred to me a few weeks ago, when the September issue of Blues Bytes went live, that it was in September of 1999 that I started writing CD reviews.  Over that fifteen years, I have written over 1,200 reviews of blues CDs, DVDs, and books.  When I started, people listened to CDs and cassettes for the most part, read books and magazines and watched their movies/documentaries on DVD/VHS.  Now, many people download their music to iPods or computers, use tablets, iPads, read books and magazines, and even stream movies/documentaries on their TVs, laptops, or other devices.  It's amazing how much technology has changed the way we do things in such a short amount of time.  Anyway, it's been a lot of fun these past fifteen years.  I've listened to a lot of great music and met some really great people in the process.  I've always enjoyed writing and Blues Bytes gave me a chance to write about something that I love, and even gave me the confidence to start my own blog.  Anyway, keep your eyes out for the October issue, which should go live pretty soon.

With the next issue of Blues Bytes in the works, I usually take a few days off from listening to new releases (some really choice selections will be coming up in the November issue, too) and go through my collection to hear a few old favorites.  This week, I've been listening to two or three pretty good ones.  One of them is Smokey Wilson's The Man From Mars, a long time favorite of mine.  Wilson was born in Mississippi, but relocated to L.A. in his mid thirties, where he opened up a club in Watts (the Pioneer Club) and led his own house band.  He recorded sporadically during the 80's, but really hit his stride in the early 90's with Bullseye Blues, where he recorded three spectacular CDs.  The Man From Mars was the third of them, and he sounds great.  His guitar work is incendiary and so are his Howlin' Wolf-styled vocals.  If you're a fan of blues guitar and you're not familiar with Wilson, you're missing a real treat.  See below.......

Blues Is Killin' Me was issued in the early 90's by Paula Records, and showcases 20 tracks from the underrated 50's Chicago label, JOB Records, with tracks from Baby Face Leroy Foster, Floyd Jones, Memphis Minnie, and Little Hudson and His Red Devils.  I've talked about Jones and Memphis Minnie here previously, but Baby Face Leroy is also worth a mention as well.  He played drums in Muddy Waters' band, and the group recorded a seminal version of "Rollin' & Tumblin'" on Parkway Records in 1950 that is still talked about by blues scholars today.  His solo tracks here, recorded a few years later, are equally good.  Unfortunately,  he passed away in the late 50's at the age of 38 from a heart attack.  Then you have Floyd Jones singing "Dark Road" on here and some nice tracks from Little Hudson to enjoy as well.  This is a great set of early electric Chicago blues from some noteworthy, but less familiar artists.

Hopefully, FBF will be back at full strength next week with a look at some great new recordings.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Do Not Adjust Your Screen!

FBF's computer went down late last week.  Fortunately, last week's post was ready to go before the crash, but we are still waiting for repairs to be completed.  I do have access to a tablet and phone, but the combination of small keys and short, stubby fingers is less than ideal and, after several frustrating attempts, I decided that it was best to drop back and punt this week.

Since that's the case, I'm taking the time to invite you to go back and revisit some of FBF's previous posts.......the Ten Questions With.... series (a couple of really good ones coming up soon), the Mount Rushmore series, the Something Old, Something New, Something Borrowed, Something Blue.......series, our CD and book reviews of new and old, and our profiles of blues artists and labels.  There's something here for all blues fans to enjoy, so check it all out and check back with us next Friday.

Friday, October 10, 2014

New Blues For You - Fall, 2014 Edition (Part 1)

Down here in Far East Mississippi, the weather is slowly moving from oppressive summer heat to cooler temperatures, the leaves are starting to change colors, the football season is in full bloom, and there are a whole bunch of great new blues releases to check out.  Let's take a few minutes to check out a few new discs that I'm right in the middle of reviewing for the next issue of Blues Bytes, with more to come in the next few weeks.

Otis Clay & Johnny Rawls - Soul Brothers (Catfood Records):  Last year, when Rawls released his tribute to O.V. Wright (discussed in detail here), he brought in Otis Clay for a few vocals.  I remember thinking that it would be a wonderful thing for these two to do an entire album together.  Well, lo and behold, the good folks at Catfood Records read my mind and brought these two together for what appears to be the soul/blues release of the years.  Actually, I figure that this was a no-brainer for the label and reading my mind wasn't exactly a requirement to come up with this collaboration.  This is ten tracks of soul/blues heaven.....Clay and Rawls sharing vocals on each song with backing by the amazing Rays (the Catfood Records house band) and the Iveys on background vocals.  The combination of Rawls' understated and smooth vocals combined with Clay's fiery, impassioned delivery are an irresistible combination.  This disc should be required listening for blues and soul fans.

The Knickerbocker All-Stars - Open Mic at the Knick (JP Cadillac Records):  The Knickerbocker Cafe' in Westerly, RI has hosted a regular who's who of blues stars over the past few decades such as Robert Cray, the Fabulous Thunderbirds, and Roomful of Blues, who played Sunday nights on a regular basis for many years).  A trio of blues fans and musicians (John Paul Gauthier, Bob Christina, and John Paul Sheerar) gathered a regular Dream Team consisting of blues veterans from these bands and others who have played at the Knick for this masterful session.  With singers like Malford Milligan, Willy Laws, Johnny Nicholas, and Curtis Salgado in the line-up and musicians that include Christina and his brother, former T-Bird Fran, Al Copley, Rich Latielle, Dave Maxwell, and Ricky King Russell tearing through a classic set of blues standards....well, do I really need to do any more to sell this for you????

Devon Allman - Ragged & Dirty (Ruf Records):  Devon Allman has had a busy couple of years, dividing his time between his solo career and his super-group, Royal Southern Brotherhood.  His latest solo release finds him in good company with Tom Hambridge behind the drum kit and serving as producer and songwriter, plus several of Chicago's finest musicians, keyboardist Marty Sammon, bass player Felton Crews, and guitarist Giles Corey.  This album is appropriately titled because its a rough and ragged set of blues/rock with a few traces of RSB's trademark Southern flair mixed in.  Allman sounds great on this tunes, a mix of originals and covers of tunes previously done by Otis Taylor, Luther Allison, and the Spinners.  Don't miss the excellent instrumental at the midpoint of the disc, "Midnight Lake Michigan."  Allman's fretwork on this tune should really get the blues guitar fans talking.

Linsey Alexander - Come Back Baby (Delmark):  I thoroughly enjoyed Alexander's previous effort for Delmark, Been There Done That, which came out in 2012.  Alexander got his start playing in soul bands around Chicago, and his brand of blues goes heavy on the soul side, which is not a bad thing at all.  It certainly helps that he's a pretty inventive guitarist and a soulful vocal style, too.  He wrote eleven of the thirteen tracks here, and they range from blues to soul to funk and he's adept in all three genres, really standing out as much on a couple of slow blues ballads as well as the serious funk numbers.  He's not afraid to get introspective on these songs either, with topics ranging from learning from your mistakes to overindulgence to observations about the ever-changing world around him.  Harmonica ace Billy Branch appears on several tracks.  This is a great disc of Chicago blues and soul that should make any blues fan happy.

Markey Blue - Hey Hey (SoulOSound Records):  I first heard Jeanette Markey on an EP released in 2011 that was supposed to be a preview of an upcoming album.  That release showed her to be a very versatile blues singer, but the forthcoming album never materialized.  Since then, the Nashville-based singer has joined forces with versatile session guitarist Ric Latina to form Markey Blue.  This new release focuses on soul music of the Memphis variety and Markey's vocals are more than up to the challenge.  She can play it tough, tender, soulful, playful.....whatever the material requires of her.  Latina's guitar work is spot-on and the band is phenomenal.  Hey Hey has plenty to offer fans of Memphis blues and soul, but Markey's vocal charms will appeal to more mainstream music fans also.  Well worth checking out.

We'll be looking at more new blues in a couple of weeks, so stay tuned.

Friday, October 3, 2014

Joe Louis Walker - The HighTone Records Years

Photo by Michael Weintrob

Over the past few years, Joe Louis Walker has certainly made an impact on the blues genre, most recently with two fine releases on Alligator Records, Hellfire and this year's Hornet's Nest, but longtime blues fans know that it's been a long and occasionally crooked musical path that Walker has taken to reach the level of success he is currently enjoying, with more than a few twists, turns, stops, and side roads along the way.  Walker has been one of the most talented and creative blues artists over the past quarter century, and part of the reason for this is related to that musical journey, which has to account for his absolute fearlessness in taking the blues in new and different directions.

Walker was born in San Francisco on Christmas Day in 1949.  His parents had recently arrived in San Francisco from Arkansas and both of his parents loved the blues.  In 1989, Walker told Mary Katherine Aldin in Living Blues that his father had more blues records than anybody he knew, except for his mother.  He and his friends also grew up listening to the blues via either records or his friends' fathers playing the blues in the neighborhood.  He was also exposed to gospel music because of his grandmother, who lived with Walker and his family.

Walker learned to play guitar in his early teens, learning from his cousins and older people in the community.  When he was 16, he was basically on his own and began playing blues and rock around town, where he ended up rooming for a while with Michael Bloomfield, who introduced him to artists like Earl Hooker.  He ended up playing and meeting Lightnin' Hopkins, Buddy Guy, Magic Sam, and many others, gaining valuable experience in the process, and even made a pilgrimage in the late 60's to Chicago with Bloomfield.

However, by the mid 70's, Walker left the blues scene, burned out by the lifestyle and the decline and death of several of his fellow musicians.  For several years, he played gospel with groups like the Spiritual Corinthians and the Gospel Hummingbirds.  Walker played with the Corinthians for ten years from 1975 until 1985.

Walker was always restless as a musician, never content to stay in the same place, so he ended up transitioning back to the blues over time.  When writing songs for the Corinthians, he found that they wanted to stick more to the traditional gospel sounds where he liked to mix soul and rock & roll sounds in.  Interestingly enough, most gospel music today follows that trend, mixing other musical styles in with the message, but at the time, it was more or less a new concept and so Walker found himself drawn back to the blues.

Walker recorded a demo in the mid 80's and sent it to several labels, including Alligator, Columbia, and Capitol.  He included a soul song, a gospel song, and two "House Rockin'" songs.  Iglauer, who had previously rejected a more traditional blues-based demo that Walker had previously submitted, told him that he enjoyed the two rockers, but ended up passing again.  Iglauer did, however, introduce and recommend Walker to Bruce Bromberg of HighTone Records, which worked out well because Walker had sent a copy of the demo to them also.  HighTone already had a pretty impressive roster, including Robert Cray, Frankie Lee, and Phillip Walker, so Joe Louis Walker was a pretty smooth fit.

In May of 1986, Walker began recording for HighTone.  His debut, Cold Is The Night, was released late that year.  It was an amazing release, with Walker writing or co-writing nearly every tune with Dennis Walker and Bruce Bromberg, who also produced with Walker, giving the disc a nice raw and unvarnished feel.  There were some memorable standouts like the desperate title track, the aching "One Woman," "Fuss and Fight," the Dennis Walker/Lowell Fulson-penned "Ten More Shows To Play," and "Don't Play Games."  His piercing lead guitar work, influenced by artists like Hooker, Freddie King, Bloomfield, and Mississippi Fred McDowell) and his gospel-influenced vocal style (in the style of Bobby Womack, Wilson Pickett, and Otis Redding) were a breath of fresh air and gave notice that there was a new face to be reckoned with on the blues scene.  I still play this one on a regular basis, some 27 years after I first bought it.

In 1988, Walker released his second HighTone album, The Gift .which ranks as one of his very best recordings to this day.  He wrote several of the tracks himself, among them highlights like "One Time Around," the moving title track, and "Main Goal."  His bass player, Henry Oden, wrote "Shade Tree Mechanic," and co-wrote a couple of others, such as "1/4 to 3."  Walker's band, the Bosstalkers (Oden, Kelvin Dixon - drums, Jimi Stewart - keys) were impeccable in support and Walker even got a hand from the Memphis Horns on several tracks (Los Lobos' Steve Berlin played sax on "Mama Didn't Raise No Fool").  Even on his second effort, you get the sense that Walker was striving to improve and add new facets to his brand of blues.  The vocals and guitar work was as powerful as his previous release, but the addition of the horns on several songs moves Walker's sound more toward an urban setting.  The Gift made many critics' Top Ten list for 1988 and deservedly so.

1989's Blue Soul saw Walker expanding his sound even more.  "Prove Your Love" featured Melvin Booker and Donnie Boone from the Spiritual Corinthians on background vocals, giving the track a really nice R&B vibe.  Tracks like "T.L.C." and "Personal Baby" are in a similar R&B/soul vein and Walker shows that he's a very good soul singer on these tunes.  Another member of Los Lobos, David Hidalgo, contributed accordion to the swampy "Ain't Nothin' Goin' On."  Walker wrote or co-wrote eight of the nine tracks on Blue Soul, and he really impresses on the slow blues, "City of Angels," and the acoustic closer, "I'll Get To Heaven On My Own," his first foray into the country blues style, but definitely not his last.  When I first heard Blue Soul, I figured that it would be the one to get Joe Louis Walker over.......move him not only to the top of the heap in the Blues World, but maybe get him some attention similar to what Robert Cray had received a few years earlier.  It was an amazingly well-balanced release.

Blue Soul completed Walker's HighTone work in the studio, but the label released a pair of live albums in 1991 and 1992, capturing the singer/guitarist in peak form during a November, 1990 set at Boz Scaggs' San Francisco nightclub, Slim's.  Live at Slim's Vol. 1 and Vol. 2 are a mix of Walker's more popular original tunes from his albums and some interesting takes on cover tunes.  Walker rarely does cover tunes on his albums because, as he said in Living Blues back in 1989,....

"Yeah, I don't do cover songs (on recordings).  I do some of them live.  I have a real theory about 'em (covers).  I can't do 'em better than they've been done.  But what I do sometimes live - I change them."

On these live albums, he does several covers with the occasional twist, including Clifton Chenier's "Hot Tamale Baby," "Little By Little" (with harp from guest Huey Lewis), and "Don't Mess Up A Good Thing" (a duet with Angela Strehli) on Vol. 1.  On Vol. 2, he covers Ray Charles ("Don't Know You"), Earl Hooker (an incredible version of "Blue Guitar"), Little Milton ("Love At First Sight"), and the Rosco Gordon favorite "Just A Little Bit."  HighTone combined the high points of these two sets into one disc (plus three previously unreleased tracks), Heritage of the Blues: Ridin' High Live, in 2003.

The live recordings brought Walker's HighTone era to a close.  When he next resurfaced in the studio, he had signed with Verve Records and was recording on their Gitanes subsidiary, releasing Blues Survivor in 1993.  Friday Blues Fix will look at this phase of JLW's recording career in a future post, but for any fans who have recently become familiar with Walker through his recent recordings for Alligator or Stony Plain, the HighTone recordings are as impressive and original as his more recent work.