Friday, July 31, 2015

Ten Questions With.........The Lucky Losers

Cathy Lemons & Phil Berkowitz - The Lucky Losers (photo by Peggy DeRose)

The Lucky Losers are Cathy Lemons and Phil Berkowitz, two 20+year veterans of the San Francisco blues scene.  Lemons is a singer and songwriter who has been entertaining audiences for 25 years, with three albums to her credit (her most recent, Black Crow, was one of 2014's best efforts).  Berkowitz has previously collaborated with fellow harp master Billy Branch, Duke Robillard, and Sean Carney, and also has a couple of albums to his credit, including his most recent, All Night Party.  

The duo recently decided to collaborate (see below) and their debut recording, A Winning Hand (on West Tone Records), is a keeper.  Produced by Kid Andersen, who also plays guitar on several tracks, the disc features twelve winning songs, split evenly between originals (three by Lemons, three by Berkowitz) and cover tunes that mix traditional and modern blues with soul, jazz, and R&B.  Both are excellent singers and songwriters and they sound great together, and Friday Blues Fix is hopeful that this partnership will continue for years to come.

Ms. Lemons and Mr. Berkowitz graciously consented to Ten Questions With......and their comments are listed below.  FBF thanks them for their time and patience and we hope you enjoy their remarks, with a few clips from their album and performances along the way.

Ten Questions With.......The Lucky Losers 

Friday Blues Fix:  How did The Lucky Losers come to be?  

Cathy Lemons:  Phil and I ARE The Lucky Losers—we are the gambler’s that won!  The risk takers that messed up and turned it all around—by meeting each other.  In 2012 my life was in ruins and I had to completely re-invent myself after my split up with bassist and musical partner Johnny Ace. I had no money, no job, no credit, no PA., no band, no career!  In one year I rebuilt it all—and my health.  Phil too went through a huge psychic shift. He went through a bad divorce in 2013 and he had been acting out in several different ways from the unhappiness of it all. But we found each other in December of 2013, just as I was finishing up Black Crow with Vizztone.  My heart had been smashed by a rebound affair and I was pretty shut down.  But then I kept seeing Phil at my gigs—all the time--and I finally took the hint.

Phil and I risked everything to make this album—money—all our time—our unique identities as individual performers—to make something really special—and with very little support from the local blues community. We just went with a mutual dream and faith.  One of our first performances was in a regional International Blues Competition in July of 2014.  Christ, I was still reading a cheat sheet on the stage to keep the lyrics straight to my brand new song “Suicide By Love” but that songs says it all.

“Do what you love and do it well. Hope that it kills you and takes you to hell.” 

Why else are we here? But to be “taken” by something that moves us.  Why not risk everything?  God loves a gambler!

We actually won the “Wild Card” round and then we got to compete in the IBC finals locally.  We did not get to go to Memphis—but we started our band from that whole experience.

FBF:  Can you tell us a little bit about the tunes you wrote for A Winning Hand?  I really liked your choices in cover tunes.  They cover a wide range of styles…..traditional Chicago blues, Memphis soul, New Orleans R&B… did you decide on which songs to do?

Cathy:  Phil listens to music all the time--more than I—and he suggested “What is Success” and “What Have I Done.”  We both explored a number of Sam & Dave songs and found the great “I Take What I Want.” We also explored other male/ female duet singing teams that did ‘60’s R&B like Vernon & Jewel—thus “Baby You Got What it Takes.” Then I discovered that Phil had about 14 songs he had been writing with Danny Caron who was Charles Brown’s guitarist.  I made him finish “Don’t You Lose It” and “Change in the Weather” for the album because I could hear harmony potential and the songs were both personal and positive. Then I went to work and crafted together my three songs. I had created “Detroit City Man” with my previous guitarist Stevie Gurr sitting in his kitchen. I spontaneously sang a bunch of stream of consciousness stuff to a peculiar rhythm Stevie created—but luckily I recorded it and loved the song.  So we added that into the pot, putting the song to a different Hooker groove, and  for our stone blues lovers. All these songs came from years and years of listening to blues & R&B—threads that make up the suit so to speak.

FBF:  Do you come from musical families?

Cathy: Yes! My mother was a classically trained singer and a soloist in the Unitarian Church. My father was a French horn player, a singer, and a pianist.  My oldest sister was a brilliant classical pianist until she was 20.  My two aunts were professional lounge singers/pianists, my uncle was a professional classical singer, my cousin was a singer in a country band.

Phil Berkowitz: No…I don’t.  Well…my father did play trumpet in high school, but never seriously.

FBF:  What kinds of music did you grow up listening to?  Who were some of your favorites?

Cathy: Well I first loved Miriam Makeba, then I loved Bob Dylan and Joan Baez. Then I branched out into Dan Hicks & His Hot Licks, Maria Muldaur , and Bonnie Raitt. Then I found blues, which hit me like a thunderbolt while watching Anson Funderburgh play live in Dallas, and from then on I became a Junior Wells, Lowel Fulson,, Jimmy McCracklin, Elmore James, Magic Sam, Bobby Bland, and James Brown freak.  I used to wake up every morning in my early twenties to James Brown’s “Sex Machine.”

Phil: When I was a kid, I was a bona fide slave to the radio!  I used to even listen to American Top 40 with Casey Kasem and write down every song on the list!  There was some interesting stuff that I came to know back in the 70s…the usual heavy suspects like Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix, The Who, The Grateful Dead, The Doors, etc.  As I got older (around 19 or so), I finally got introduced to blues when my girlfriend bought me three records: Muddy Waters- “Hard Again,”  “Best Of B.B. King,”  and a record called “Coffee House Blues” that featured Brownie McGee & Sonny Terry as well as Lightnin’ Hopkins.

FBF:  When did you decide that you wanted to do this for a living?

Cathy: The minute I heard Anson hit those blue notes. Like a calling in my head—BAM! “That’s what I want to do!  Sing with THAT sound! And I’ll do it better than Darrell (Nulisch) too!” Those were my thoughts!  LOL.  Now remember I was a kid. I even learned Bobby Bland’s song “I Intend to Take Your Place” because I wanted to sing it to Anson and knock Darrell Nulisch out of the way. Aren’t I terrible? Of course they would have to know the darn song to play it live so I never got to sing it.

Phil: Oh…I guess it was around 1996 (at the age of 30 or so) when I was going for a teaching credential at San Francisco State.  I saw an ad in the back of the SF Bay Guardian that read: “Looking for a blues band…pay low, but not invisible.”  At the time, I had been noodling around with the harmonica for only 4 years or so.  But something seemed to click in my brain at that moment that told me this was something I wanted to try to do for the rest of my life.  So I answered the ad and played the gig. The owner stiffed me, so I guess the ad should have read “NO pay!”  But I’m thankful that it did not because it was that ad that got me off and running so to speak.

FBF:  Did you start out liking the blues, or did you move to the blues from another direction?  Who were some of your favorites when you started listening?

Phil: Well, I sort of answered half of this question earlier, but let me elaborate a bit.  Muddy Waters has always been one of my favorites.  A couple of years before I took up harmonica, I heard my roommate playing a record of Billy Boy Arnold’s earliest Vee-Jay recordings…and I remember how that sound just about knocked me out.  Also, Leadbelly sounded like a whole other world to me.  Definitely spellbinding if not inspiring!  Then a few years later when I started playing harmonica: Little Walter, Junior Wells, Mark Ford, Both Sonny Boys, Louis Jordan and a whole host of others too numerous to mention!

Cathy: Well I just mentioned the favs but I can add Big Mama Thornton. I was always expanding and listening to all kinds of blues and blues influenced artists. Like Bobby Parker’s “Blues Get off of My Shoulder” which I tried to record back in 1998 to the straight up traditional blues of John Lee Hooker. I don’t see a definitive line between rhythm & blues and blues.  I see it as the same thing if the blue bending major to minor notes and chords are in the song.  And the lyrics have to have the kinky amused twist—like “I’m gonna go shoot myself now so cry for me—and keep crying so I don’t have to shoot myself just yet.”

FBF:  Which musicians influenced, or continue to influence each of you, as songwriters and performers?

Cathy:  Heck, I am always being influenced—by everything from L.C. Ulmer to young bluesman Dave Gross playing a hill country beat at a Vizztone Beale St. party (I’m gonna steal that lick, boy!), to Gillian Welsh’s song Tennessee where she sings “But of all the little ways I find to hurt myself, you might be my favorite one of all,” which I think is just a great lyric to my own inner dictations. What I look for in a song is the story of the down and out hustler who’s gonna get back up. That’s my favorite theme because that’s me.

Phil: Well…from listening to recordings, there are hundreds.  But as far as some real-life people who either have influenced me or are currently…I would say Gary Primich, RJ Mischo, Danny Caron, Kid Andersen, Raz Kennedy, Sean Carney, Bill Stuve, Cathy Lemons, Duke Robillard, Billy Branch and Ben Rice.  I probably should mention some well known songwriters who I feel have influenced my songwriting such as Willie Dixon, Robert Hunter, Bob Dylan, Allen Toussaint, Porter/Hayes, Doc Pomus, The Band, Leiber/Stoller, Randy Newman, Tom Waits, Jerry Ragavoy….oh, yeah…also the great poet/writers like Kerouac, Ginsberg, Bukowski, Coleridge, Keats, Whitman, Harvey Pekar…and a lot more who I’m leaving out!

FBF:  What do you consider to be your finest moment as a blues artists……the moment that made you sit back and think “Wow!  This is why I chose to do this!”

Cathy: Well I had that moment at The Napa Winery on June 25th 2015—not too long ago.  Phil and I nailed it.  We put a show together with Frank Bey & Anthony Paule and the bar was raised way high and we were nervous as hell, but we both did it. FINALLY!  We have our kinks in the wheel--but that night the wheel turned in the right direction and we just did a great job together.  All the magic was in the music that night and the sound was so perfect.  I just felt so happy and alive. And Phil was right there with me not skipping a beat. We were together up there achieving our dream-- something that was seemingly impossible only a year prior.

Phil:  Hmm….I think I’ve had a few moments like that throughout my 20 year career.  But most recently, I would say a show that Cathy and I played as The Lucky Losers at The Napa City Winery.  I was the one who booked the show…and I wanted to have our act open for The Fank Bey & Anthony Paule Band, who I think is one of the best Soul/Blues acts out there today.  Maybe that inspired us, but I know that we turned in a pretty seamless performance (as did Frank Bey)!

FBF:  Both of you have played the Bay Area blues scene for over two decades….do you have any interesting stories that you’d like to share?

Cathy:  Well I have played big stages and small stages, with famous musicians and not so famous ones—and I have played to crowded halls and empty seats. But one of my best stories is about opening up for Paul Butterfield in 1987. Paul was down on his luck and playing in a complete dive in North Beach—capacity 50. He was struggling with alcohol and heroin.  I opened up for him and later hung out with him and the other musicians that were on the same show. We went to a jam at Larry Blake’s which is in Berkeley, and Paul was treated very badly I thought by those musicians that hosted the jam—but he got his revenge. When they finally called him up after making him wait for an hour (he had to sit there with us and listen to shit for music) he made minced meat out of them all.  And I’ll never forget how sorry I felt for him. Here was this great talent who had essentially destroyed himself with drugs and alcohol--very little remained of him—his voice was shot—his confidence—his faith. I saw his acute suffering. I remember thinking “I don’t want to be like that.”  And because I too was struggling with heroin, I thought perhaps I could learn from this.

I have a blog called CathyLemons BluesSinger GunSlinger if you want to read the full story called “A Night With Paul Butterfield 

Phil:  When I played in my first band, The High Rollers, we played a gig in Alameda (just across the way from Oakland).  The venue used to be owned by someone named Krull who also owned the pizza place next door.  Evidently, the current owner had just purchased the bar property from the former owner (and named it The Whole Shebang)…but the pizza place, Krull's Pizza, was still in business next door.  One night, we were playing a Ray Charles song (an early Atlantic side entitled "It Should've Been Me) which was a regular staple in our set list.  There's a verse in it that says: "I ate a bowl of chili and I felt O.K.  At least until I passed this fine cafe. I seen a guy eating a great big steak…while the waitress stood by feeding him ice cream and cake…It should've been me!"  I would usually ad-lib this verse and insert a reference either to the venue (if they served food) or someplace nearby as a way of personalizing it more for the audience.  So when I got to the verse, I said:  "…at least until I passed Krull's Pizza Cafe."  No less than two seconds later, the owner rushed the stage ranting and screaming at us while we were playing:  "You guys just signed your walking papers…you screwed up, buddy boy…It's The Whole Shebang, The Whole Shebang…not Krull's.  Better get your information straight!!  As this was happening, our drummer stood up from his drum seat (while continuing to play) and started yelling back at the owner:  "Listen, man…you don't talk to us like that…you got some nerve…either you treat us with respect or we can take it outside!!"  We finished our set and I think cooler heads prevailed.  But needless to say, we didn't feel the need to play there again!

FBF:  What kind of music do you listen to in your spare time?   Obviously, you both have pretty big record collections.

Cathy: I love Gillian Welsh. But I also love old gospel. And I love love love blues.  The kind that makes your skin crawl--like Buddy Guy.  I like irreverent, mean, nasty and to the point songwriting.  I don’t spare myself and I don’t want to when I write--and that’s what I like to listen to. Phil listens to The Grateful Dead, Allen Toussaint, L.C. Ulmer, Bob Dylan, Junior Wells, Gary Primach, Louis Jordan, and every kind of blues/R&B known to man.

FBF:  If you weren’t musicians, what do you think you would be doing?

Cathy: I probably would not be alive. My dear.  I am an ex-junkie and I lived about 9 lives.  Music and musicians are what sustains me. I am not a creature of this earth. I don’t care about what normal people care about. I care about making art. Something from the air. Of the air.

Phil: That’s a good question…probably nowhere near as much!

FBF:  What does the future hold for The Lucky Losers?  Both of you enjoy successful solo careers.  Do you think that you will revisit this concept soon?

Cathy:  We are taking off!  We are touring in the fall—going all over the place.  We are getting festival dates, looking at Europe.  We are also getting the help we need too.  We have a great publicist—Frank Roszak, a social media person, a great voice teacher—Raz Kennedy—and we have each other.  And we are going to make another record—with more of our own songs.

Friday, July 24, 2015

Listen To......The Music of Leo "Bud" Welch

I've been reading and hearing about Leo 'Bud" Welch for a couple of years, but I only got on board a few weeks ago.  On paper, he seemed like someone I wanted to hear, an older Mississippi hill country guitarist who seemingly showed up out of the blue and was blowing away fans and critics alike with his release, Sabougla Voices.  I wasn't sure because sometimes I pick music up that critics rave about (usually in other genres, but sometimes in  blues) and I don't apparently get the same vibe that they do......not all the time, but occasionally.  After Welch's most recent album, I Don't Prefer No Blues, was released earlier this year, I decided to check him out, ordering both of his disc on Amazon.

Welch has an interesting every-man backstory of sorts.  Born in Sabougla, MS, which is about 20 or so miles east of Grenada and about 12 miles west of Calhoun City, he picked up a guitar for the first time when he was 12.  It was his older cousin's guitar and considered "off limits," but Welch and a younger cousin would "borrow" it while he was gone to work, at least until he caught them playing it one time.  When he heard Welch play it, he was impressed enough that he allowed him to continue to play it.

He also learned to play harmonica and fiddle and soon was playing local picnics, parties, and juke joints and clubs.  His brand of blues mixed with gospel and was raw and ragged and had a primal urgency.  He was once offered an audition by B.B. King, but he couldn't afford the trip to Memphis.  Instead, he worked during the day on a logging crew for over thirty years and played his music on the side at night and on weekends.

In the mid-70's, with the popularity of the blues on the decline and gig hard to find, Welch switched to the blues, playing in the same style, but with different lyrics and themes.   He played with the Sabougla Voices group and also with the Skuna Valley Male Chorus.  Unlike many blues artists, Welch never considered the blues to be "the devil's music," thinking that the blues merely reflected the daily up's and down's of people's lives......just songs about the everyday trials and tribulations of regular folks.

Welch soon attracted the attention of the folks at Fat Possum Records' Big Legal Mess subsidiary, who released Sabougla Voices in early 2014.  From all accounts, it basically Welch's church set, backed by a band that includes guitarist Jimbo Mathus and a pair of back-up singers dubbed the Sabougla Voices.  This is an amazing, ragged, but righteous set of gospel tunes with blues overtones and is probably unlike anything you've ever completely blurs the line between the blues and gospel.  The joy and exuberance just erupts from every note Welch plays and sings, and his performance belies the fact that he was 81 years old at the time of recording.

Due to Sabougla Voices' success, Welch was able to tour the world, playing festivals and clubs around the globe.  As part of his deal with Big Legal Mess, Welch promised that if the label issued his gospel record, he would record a blues album for them.  As good as his debut was, Welch's second release, I Don't Prefer No Blues (I read somewhere that this was a quote from his minister regarding the new album) is just an incredible set that gets the blues down to its basic core.

Mathus returns on guitar and Sharde' Thomas joins Welch on vocals for the mournful opening track, which sort of bridges the first album and the second.  From that point forward, the album is pure down-home blues with the rawest, most raucous guitar work, grinding rhythms, and Welch's craggly, weathered vocals just demolishing everything that's in the way.  You've probably heard some of these songs before, like on the first album, but you've never heard them presented in this manner.  The best way to hear this one is to turn the volume up as high as it will go.

Now 83 years old, Welch, a resident of Bruce, MS,  is still going strong with no signs of letting up.  He hits all of the Mississippi blues festivals (he was at Bentonia last month), and just finished a European tour.  He will be appearing at the annual Sunflower River Blues and Gospel Festival (no doubt playing both styles) on August 6th in Clarksdale, and will then be heading back to the UK.  For Leo "Bud" Welch, not to mention blues fans all over, "Better Late Than Never" was never a more appropriate phrase.  

Blues fans absolutely need BOTH of these albums in their if's, and's, or but's about it.  There's also a Kickstarter drive working to film a documentary of Welch's life and you can go here to check it out and make a donation. 


Friday, July 17, 2015

Five Albums You Might Have Missed (V.13)

It's time once again for Friday Blues Fix's look at five discs that might have slipped through the cracks upon first release.  If you're like me, you might have missed them because you weren't listening to the blues at the time, they might have been overshadowed by other new releases, or maybe they went out of print before you could find them, or maybe you just flat missed out the first time around due to total cluelessness, which is how it usually works for me.  Don't look now, but this is your golden opportunity to make up for lost time and track down these great albums.  Some of them may be out of print, but they can be found pretty easily online at eBay or Amazon.

The Bo-Keys - The Royal Sessions (Yellow Dog Records):  This disc blew me away when it was released in 2004, and it still packs a punch today.  If you are a fan of classic Memphis soul, especially the instrumental bands.....Booker T & the MG's, the Bar-Kays, the Mar-Keys, etc....this disc has your name all over it.  The band is loaded with veterans of the Memphis blues scene......drummer Willie Hall, B-3 master Ronnie Willams, trumpeter Marc Franklin, sax man Jim Spake, and guitarist Skip Pitts (the man who brought you the "waka waka" guitar on "Theme from Shaft").....who collaborated with young bass player Scott Bomar to present this awesome set of instrumentals.  The grease and BBQ are practically dripping off this gritty collection of mostly original compositions, alongside tunes originally performed by Booker T, James Brown, and Jimmy Smith.  The Bo-Keys also released 2012's Got To Get Back, which received a lot of attention at the time, but this one is still my favorite and still blows me away today (If there was such a thing in everyday life, their reading of "Coming Home Baby" would serve as my theme song).

Phillip Walker - Someday You'll Have These Blues (Shout! Factory):  Hard to believe that it's been five years (July 22nd) since Walker passed away.  He was such a reliable artist for such a long time, though he was not recorded nearly as much as he should have been.  Walker was born in Louisiana, but learned his craft in southern Texas from guitarists like Lonnie Brooks, Gatemouth Brown, and Long John Hunter.  He backed zydeco legend Clifton Chenier for 3 1/2 years in the mid 50's, then moved to Los Angeles and began working as a guitarist there, cutting singles.  His guitar work eventually became a combination of the West Coast and Gulf Coast sound.  He cut this album in the mid 70's for Joliet Records.  It was later picked up by Alligator and eventually by HighTone Records, the label owned by Bruce Bromberg, who produced the album with Dennis Walker.  Walker was never earth-shattering as a performer, but he had a quiet consistency.....his albums were ALWAYS good with a lot of variation in material (from urban blues to countrified blues to soul) and featured some tasteful, understated guitar.  This album is no exception, but sometimes it seems to get lost in the shuffle among his other recordings.  Walker actually became a bit more prolific as a recording artist in the late 80's through the mid 2000's (even recording a set with two of his heroes, Hunter and Brooks) and all of his recordings are worth hearing, but this one is one of my favorites.

Lonesome Sundown - Been Gone Too Long (Shout! Factory):  Lonesome Sundown (a.k.a. Cornelius Green) was one of the unsung heroes of Excello Records.  Also starting out as guitarist for Chenier, Sundown ended up recording a number of classic sides for the label, beginning in the mid 50's.  He retired from the music business in the mid 60's, focusing on the church.  He was persuaded in 1977 to come out of retirement to record this album for Joliet Records, which was produced by Bruce Bromberg and Dennis Walker.  Alligator Records later released it on their label, and finally it ended up on Bromberg's HighTone label.  There are eleven tracks on the album, which features several swamp blues tunes and a couple of soul tracks, which showed that he could expand his sound beyond the standard blues fare.  Phillip Walker, whose above release followed the same distribution path as this one, chips in on guitar and they worked really well well that Rounder Records eventually released a collaborative effort from them (which is hard to find, but worth a listen).  This was intended to be Lonesome Sundown's "comeback" album, but it failed to sell, either with Joliet or Alligator, which is a shame.  It's a really good set from an artist who never  really got the recognition he deserved, and if you're into swamp blues at all, you should give it a listen.

Big George Brock & the Houserockers - Club Caravan (Cat Head Delta Blues & Folk Art):  Brock has been playing the blues for over 60 years, and is still going strong.  When Roger Stolle opened up his Cat Head store, he booked Brock for his Grand Opening......he had heard Brock regularly when they both lived in St. Louis.  Stolle decided to record Brock after the blues man mentioned that he'd like to cut an album.  The session was done at Jimbo Mathus' Delta Recording Studio with Riley Coatie's famly band (called the Houserockers).  Coatie taught his children to play in the old school style, which is right up Brock's alley, as the singer/harmonica player works through a set of songs from Muddy Waters, Sonny Boy Williamson, Howlin' Wolf, and Jimmy Reed, plus six originals, which includes "M for Mississippi," "Down South," a nod to Cat Head, plus a pair of instrumentals.  Since this release, Brock has recorded a couple more albums for Cat Head and APO, and he's appeared on a couple of DVDs, including Hard Times, a Cat Head documentary about his life and career.  If you have a hankering for some old school blues, look no further.

Tailgators - It's A Hog Groove (Upstart Records):  This album was part of the reason that I finally switched from cassettes to CDs in the late 90's.  In the late 80's, I discovered the Tailgators and their hot blend of rock & roll, Louisiana swamp pop and blues, and Cajun/zydeco.  In fact, their recordings on Wrestler Records convinced me to check out more of their influences.  Their releases were sporadic, but always worth the wait.  When this album came out, it was only available on CD, and it had been a couple of years since I'd heard anything new from them.  I finally accepted the inevitable, and made the transition.  When I did, this was in the first batch of CDs that I purchased, and it's still one of my favorites.  This one has it all, rock & roll, blues, Cajun/zydeco, and surf guitar, sometimes all in the same song (see below).  If you're having a party of any kind, this CD needs to be in your collection.  Whenever I play it, which is pretty frequently, I play it three or four times in a row.  It's that good, folks!

Friday, July 10, 2015

New Blues For You - Summer, 2015 Edition (Part 1)

Your humble correspondent has been bombarded with great new releases during the first few weeks of the summer.  I've been reviewing CDs for over fifteen years and I can't remember this many great albums being issued at one time.  Let me tell you, it's a nice problem to have.......listening to all of them.  Below are just seven of the new releases, with many more to come over the next few weeks.  As always, expanded reviews of these albums can be found in current and future issues of Blues Bytes, THE monthly online magazine of blues CD reviews.

Before we get started........FBF had the opportunity to hear a couple of sneak previews from new albums that you definitely need to put on your "Must Buy" list.  First up is Buddy Guy's new release, Born To Play Guitar will be hitting the stores on July 31st, and it looks to be a good one, based on this preview of the title track, which is a biographical track that features some potent string bending from Mr. Guy.  Check it out below.  FBF will have more to say about this one when it goes live, so stay tuned.

The second upcoming release is from Eddie Cotton on DeChamp Records, and is entitled One At A Time.  The track FBF got to hear was called "Ego At Your Door," and it sounded for all the world like a long-lost track from Al Green's days at Hi Records, with the horns, funky keyboards, and Cotton's amazing vocal.  If the rest of the album is as good as this track, then it will be Cotton's best yet, which is really saying something given the quality of his previous releases.  This guy is the total class guitarist, excellent singer, and great songwriter.  

Okay, that's two to be on the lookout for in the near future.  Now, let's take a look at a few new releases.......

Bey Paule Band - Not Goin' Away (Blue Dot Records):  Formerly, The Frank Bey & Anthony Paule Band, their name has changed, but the music has most definitely not......they are still serving up some fantastic old-school blues and soul.  Frank Bey is one of the best musical "re-discoveries" of the past five years and he has found his musical soulmate in guitarist Paule.  Their new release consists of a dozen tracks, with ten originals that sound just like they used to back in the day, and covers of tunes from Candi Staton and George Jackson.  With great songs, a master soul man behind the mic, and a band that will knock your socks off, Not Goin' Away is just what every fan of soul blues needs to add to their collection.

Anthony Gomes - Electric Field Holler (Up 2 Zero Entertainment):  Hard to believe that this is the Toronto blues rocker's 12th release.  I haven't heard all of his recordings, but this is the best one I've heard so far. This is pure, undiluted blues rock that starts right out of the gate with a roar and only lets up for an acoustic track about midway (about the current state of the blues) and cranks right back up again.  Throughout, Gomes pays his respects to his influences and offers up some of his best songwriting and singing to date.  If this one had been release in the mid 70's, instead of the mid 10's, they'd be playing it to death on FM radio and Gomes would be the darling of the music periodicals of the day.  As it is, Electric Field Holler will make older fans reminisce about those days and make newer fans crank up the volume.

Deb Ryder - Let It Rain (Bejeb Music):  Ryder's second release picks up where her debut (Might Just Get Lucky) left off.  The talented vocalist worked for years as a studio musician singing TV jingles, backing vocals on several albums, and opening for a lot of blues stars who played at her father's club, Topanga Corral.  She's also fronted the Bluesryders with her husband, bass player Rick Ryder for 20 years.  She's covered a lot of musical territory in her career, and this new release focuses on the blues and R&B side of her talents with a strong set of original tunes and some great musical support from the likes of Kim Wilson, Kirk Fletcher, Johnny Lee Schell, Albert Lee, Mike Finnigan, and Tony Braunagel.  This is an excellent sophomore release for a singer who deserves to be heard by a larger audience.

Josh Garrett - Honey for my Queen (self-released):  This CD was a pleasant surprise.  I wasn't familiar with Garrett, but he plays a brand of blues that has deep roots in his native Louisiana, but also gives a nod to the music of the Mississippi Delta.  He's also a great songwriter, penning all but one of the eleven tracks here.  With a roster of musicians that includes Tab Benoit's bassist Corey Duplechin, Waylon Thibodeaux, and guitarist James Johnson (the guitarist on Slim Harpo's "Baby Scratch My Back"), you know this has to be a good one, and it is.  I'm looking forward to hearing more from this guy in the future.

Voo Davis - Midnight Mist (Butter & Bacon Records):  This disc covers a lot of ground.....blues, jazz, rock, country, jam band, and roots.  Davis is based in Chicago, but was born and spent a lot of time in Alabama.  He toured with Eddie King, who worked as Koko Taylor's guitarist for a long time.  He's a talented guitarist in a number of genres and his vocals are equally potent.  He's as comfortable tearing through a blues rocker as he is unplugging for a country blues or funk and soul.  This is a release that will satisfy a lot of music fans in different genres, but Davis' versatile guitar work and his seasoned vocals are the main selling points, regardless of genre.

Omar Coleman - Born & Raised (Delmark):  One of Chicago's rising stars, Coleman has played on several Delmark albums backing other artists (Mike Wheeler, Toronzo Cannon), plus releases by Ray Fuller and Sean Carney.  This time around, he's at center stage, fronting a great band with guest appearances from guitarists Cannon, Wheeler, and Dave Herrero, and pulling out all the stops.  Coleman not only plays the blues, Chicago style, but he also ventures into Southern Soul and funky R&B.  Growing up in Chicago in the 70's and 80's, he was influenced as much by Bobby Rush and O.V. Wright as he was by Muddy Waters and Junior Wells.  He's as strong on the soulful stuff as he is the down-home blues.  Those of us who have heard him already (check out Severn's 2005 set Chicago Blues Harmonica Project, or the Louisiana Swamp Stomp benefit album, which was previously reviewed here at FBF) knew he would be something special if he got the chance to show it and this album proves he's got the goods.

Travis Haddix - It's My Time Now:  The Best of  (Blues Critic Records):  The Moonchild has been playing the blues since the early 70's, but started his recording career in the late 80's.  He's one of the most prolific artists since that time, as reflected in this 18-track set that collects Haddix tunes from albums by multiple labels from the early 90's Ichiban releases through his own Wann-Sonn label to his current label, Benevolent Blues, plus four new songs.  What's most remarkable about this collection is how consistently good Haddix has been over an extended period of time.  He hasn't lost a inch off his fastball.  He's still playing those crisp B.B. King-like leads and his songs are as interesting and entertaining.  In fact, he may be getting better with age.  I've been listening to Haddix for a long time, and I have to say that seeing a new release from him always puts a hop in my step.  If you're not familiar with this unsung hero of the modern blues, this is a great place to get started.


We'll have reviews of more great new releases in a couple of weeks, so stay tuned.

Friday, July 3, 2015

Adventures in the Mississippi Delta

June was a great blues-filled month for your humble correspondent.  My birthday is in the early part of June and then there's Father's Day a couple of weeks later.  To celebrate both days, I got to enjoy two fun-filled days rambling around the Mississippi Delta over a couple of weekends.  It was pretty eye-opening because I had not been up there in a number of years, so it was cool to see what changes had taken place in the interim.

Day 1:  The weekend before last, my family decided to take me to Indianola to the B.B. King Museum for Father's Day.  It was my first visit since 2009.  It takes about two and a half hours to get there from where I live, so we set out early Saturday morning and our journey took us through Jackson through Yazoo City through Belzoni and Inverness and finally to Indianola, which is a city of about 12,000 to 15,000 residents who have no doubt seen an upswing in blues visitors since King's death six weeks ago.

The museum is just off of US Highway 49 on 2nd Street.  It was built on the site of an old cotton gin that King worked in as a teenager.  Part of the gin, one of the few still standing that was constructed from brick, is still standing and has been renovated and is used by the museum for various types of functions, such as meetings, receptions, and special exhibits.

Once you're in the museum, visitors watch a short video of King which serves as an introduction of sorts.  He visits a couple of places where he grew up and shares some memories of growing up in his warm and friendly manner.  

From that point, you step into the museum and get a very comprehensive look at King's life, beginning with an exhibit that focuses on the 1930's Mississippi that King grew up in.  You get to experience the trials and difficulties that King, and other African-Americans, experienced while growing up during that time, from his early years to his teen years working on plantations and driving a tractor.  There's an interesting look at the family that raised him after his mother and grandmother passed away during his childhood years.

From that point, you move to his days in Memphis as a deejay and musician.  There's a lot of memorabilia from WDIA, the station where King worked as a deejay, and his transformation from Riley B. King to the Beale Street Blues Boy.  There's some interesting items from the radio station, which was the first in the country formatted to serve African-Americans, including the elixir that King used to promote on his shows, Peptikon.  

There's also a lot of information about his early recording days in this area, and there are some multimedia places located through this area where visitors can read about and listen to the numerous artists from different genres that influenced King as a musician.  This is a great opportunity for novice blues fans to learn about different artists and hear different styles of music.

The rest of the museum covers the 60's through the most recent years, beginning with his relentless touring of the "Chitlin' Circuit" (complete with a replica of his tour bus, which serves as a theatre to view one of the many videos presented throughout the museum), going through his struggles to maintain an audience (due to changing musical tastes) in the mid 60's to his "discovery" by a white audience in the late 60's, thanks to the efforts of musicians he influenced, such as Eric Clapton, and promoters like Bill Graham, who booked King at the Fillmore and exposed him to a much wider audience, to his recognition as a blues icon.

As King's story unfolds, visitors also get a good look at how the world changed during this time, with the Civil Rights' movement allowing him to go places that he couldn't go before.  King was the perfect Civil Rights ambassador, with his kind and easygoing nature that appealed to fans both black and white, and you really get a sense of this during this part of the exhibit.

As you leave the exhibit, there's one more video to watch, with several supporters and musicians from different genres paying tribute to King's talent, his warm personality, and his generous spirit.  There were several points during the exhibit that were emotional, but this one was the most emotional, because this video was done before King's death to honor him and now it sounds more like a eulogy.  At this point, more than any other, I really felt the most emotional about his passing.  I understood the magnitude of it......we will probably never experience a blues artist like King again.

After a quick visit through the gift shop, it dawned on me that King was buried on the grounds, but I had not heard anything about it during our tour.  After purchasing a few items in the gift shop (some cool T-shirts and a CD that I had been looking for), I asked the lady working behind the counter where the grave was.  She pointed me to the west end of the ground.  We walked outside the building past the Educational/Cultural annex, not really knowing what to expect.

The grave was surrounded by a chain line fence with one lone wreath.  I have to admit it looked pretty lonely back there.  I knew that there hadn't been much time to do anything else and that it's all going to look very nice in the near future, but at the same time, it was a bit disappointing.  I plan to return once they get all the landscaping and construction work done to revisit it.  I'm sure it will be very nice and will serve as a fitting tribute to him when they're done.

Overall, I think you absolutely HAVE to visit the museum if you are even remotely interested in the blues.  It's a great way to spend three - four hours immersed in the history of the man and the music.  My family enjoyed it as much as I did and they learned a lot about King and the blues.

I had high hopes for the family to eat at the Blue Biscuit, located across the street from the museum.  Joe had sung its praises here a few weeks ago, but it was not to be.  It closes during the mid-afternoon and that was when we left the museum.  Disappointed, we drove back south to Yazoo City, where we discovered the excellent BBQ restaurant. Ubon's, which is located on US 49 next to a Blue Marker honoring Gatemouth Moore.  I highly recommend it if you're in the neighborhood, and be sure to sign your name on the wall, ceiling or counter-top of your choice while there.

On the way home, we stopped in at the Bentonia Blues Festival for a short visit.  Bentonia is only a few miles south of Yazoo City, so it was on the way.  Though we weren't there very long, we did get to hear L.C. Ulmer, one of my favorites, so that was pretty cool.  The music line-up was pretty fluid, with no real schedule to speak of.....just a list of artists to perform with no set times.

Many small towns in Mississippi have an annual festival of some kind with food, arts, crafts, and entertainment which consists of local singers and bands who perform country or gospel singing and maybe a dance team or two.  It's fairly small, with a few food booths, crafts tents, and t-shirt vendors around the town square.  The music stage is set up in front of Jimmy "Duck" Holmes' Blue Front Cafe.  I really like the small-town atmosphere and will be spending much more time here next summer, for sure.

All in all, not a bad day at all and a great Father's Day present.  I really enjoyed spending the day with the family, and I think they enjoyed it as much as I did, even though it was a typically hot and humid Mississippi day.

Day 2:  My brother and I share a birthday.  We were born 13 years apart, but share a lot of the same interests.  Every year, for our birthday, we try do something together.....usually we go out to eat, go to a movie, or go shopping, etc....  This year, we decided to head up to Clarksdale, MS to check out a few of the blues-related sites.  We weren't sure exactly what we would do when we got there, but we had three things that we definitely wanted to do......go to the Delta Blues Museum, go to Cat Head, and eat some good food.

It's about a three hour drive to Clarksdale from where we live, so we plugged in an iPod with a boatload of blues tunes and enjoyed the drive.  One of my favorite parts of the drive is just east of Greenwood on Highway 82, where the rolling hills disappear and the flat lands of the Mississippi Delta takes over.  It's really neat to see.  The journey took us through Greenwood up to Tutwiler (where W.C. Handy "discovered" the blues while waiting for a train) to Clarksdale.

It had been almost 20 years since I had been to Clarksdale.  Back then, the only places that I visited were the Delta Blues Museum and Stackhouse Records, the great little record store that was in a building that looked like a steamboat.  At that time, there wasn't a lot of help available to blues fans to get around.  There was a blues map available at Stackhouse, but that was about it, as far as I knew.  There was no internet, no Facebook or Twitter, and really no way for blues fans to connect on a regular basis unless they were pretty close together.

Things have changed quite a bit since then.  The downtown area of Clarksdale has several blues-related shops, music venues, restaurants......more than we actually had time to do in a four-six hour visit.

Our first stop was the Delta Blues Museum.  For many years, the museum was located in a section of the town's library.  I always enjoyed visiting because it was sort of cozy and comfortable.  There were some pretty cool displays of musical instruments, newspaper and magazine archives, and cool displays like the Muddywood guitar, which was a guitar made from a piece of Muddy Waters' cabin, a life-sized sculpture of Waters, lots of pictures and old other words, nearly everything a budding blues fan like I was could really ask for.

The museum was moved in 1999 to the old Clarksdale freight depot, which allowed for much more space than in the library.  Since then, more space has been added to the original structure.....a bigger room and a second story (which is still in progress).  The added space has allowed the museum to increase their inventory, so now they have a lot more display cases devoted to many of the region's musical legends......John Lee Hooker (some of his guitars), B.B. King (one of his "Lucilles"), Son Thomas (his old electric guitar and several of his macabre sculptures, including his "Woman in Coffin"), Charlie Musselwhite (some of his harmonicas, a pair of shoes, and other memorabilia), Son House, and multiple Stella guitars (the guitar of choice for many of the pre-war blues men, such as Skip James, Charley Patton, etc.....).  One of the coolest displays to me was one that included Big Joe Williams' famed nine-string guitar.  I remembered seeing that guitar in several pictures and a couple of album covers, and now there it was right in front of me!!

Scene inside the Muddy Waters Cabin

The new room was devoted to Muddy Waters and included the cabin that Waters lived in at Stovall Farms, well not the entire cabin, but what was left intact when the cabin was salvaged by the House of Blues and donated to the museum in 2001.  There were several plaques with information about Waters' life and music were attached to the outside of the cabin, and a musical timeline was attached to the inside walls of the cabin.  Also in the cabin was the life-sized sculpture, along with a video, and a guitar that Waters sold to a friend while trying to leave a town in a hurry (a humorous letter of authenticity is included).

One thing that I thought was peculiar was the basic absence of any Howlin' Wolf information of materials.  He was one of the few who wasn't represented very much, if at all.  I've not been to the Howlin' Wolf Museum in his native West Point, MS, so I wondered if the fact that he had his own museum there was the reason.  I didn't ask anyone about it......probably should have.

It was a very nice experience and there were a lot of interesting items to see.  Judging by the additional space that's been added, they will have even more exhibits in the future.  We talked to some of the folks working in the gift shop and they told us that they were trying to add to their collection to fill the second floor.  As it is, it's still a pretty good stop for blues fans and takes an hour or two to explore completely.

While there, I picked up a couple of CDs.....a collection of the Mississippi Sheiks (one of my favorite pre-war blues groups) and a copy of Taj Mahal's first CD.

From there, we visited the famous Abe's BBQ at the crossroads (Highways 61 and 49).  Abe's has been a part of Clarksdale since the mid 20's, and is a favorite stop for many visitors.  This was my first time to visit, but not my last.  They serve BBQ pork and beef, hot tamales, and ribs and what I had (beef brisket sandwich) was great!  Abe's has a website that you can visit to check out their menu and you can even order their delicious BBQ sauce online.

We visited Cat Head Delta Blues & Folk Art, Inc. next, which is just a couple of blocks from the Delta Blues Museum.  The best way that I can describe Cat Head is that it's the "Bass Pro Shop" for fans of Mississippi blues.   If you're a blues fan, I assure you that there's something in Cat Head that you will want, from CDs to DVDs to books to arts and crafts items to clothing and caps to photos and art.

I have known Roger Stolle for about ten years, via the internet......even interviewed him a couple of times at FBF, but had never met him in person, so I finally got to do that.  We had a nice visit and general discussion about the state of blues in Mississippi, improvements in the tourism aspect over the years, and his upcoming internet program with Jeff Konkel, Moonshine & Mojo Hands.

I was finally able to get one of the things that I've wanted for a long time.......a Cat Head baseball cap.  I also picked up a pretty cool-looking Cat Head t-shirt and a CD that I have been trying to locate for nearly twenty years.....The Wesley Jefferson Band:  The Delta Blues Live at the Do Drop Inn.  If you're a blues fan, you must stop by Cat Head if you're in Clarksdale.  You can visit Cat Head's website and see what they have to offer, but that's only the tip of the iceberg.....come and see for yourself.

I almost forgot to make our last stop, and boy, would I have regretted it.  I had heard from several people about how cool the Rock & Blues Museum was, and that I didn't need to leave Clarksdale without visiting.  Just a couple of blocks from Cat Head, the museum features music memorabilia from the 20's through the 70's, and in the process it shows how all American music has its roots in the blues.

I can't begin to describe the items included in the museum, but it includes albums, 45's, 78's, tons of pictures, guitars, outfits, videos, old radios and record players, and other memorabilia.  There's a Clarksdale room featuring many of the blues legends from the area.  From there, the museum traces the history of modern pop, rock & roll, rockabilly, and blues. Every time, I rounded a corner, my jaw dropped.  There was something else even cooler on the next aisle than the previous aisle.

Theo Dasbach, who was born and lived in The Netherlands, owns all of the items in the museum, amassed over a lifetime of collecting.  He originally opened the store in his native country in the mid 90's, but moved it to Clarksdale in 2005.  Dasbach loves everything about the blues and the musical styles that were influenced by it.  He's also a performer, having released a couple of CDs in the past few years as Theo D the Boogieman.

Theo D "The Boogieman"
As we were walking out, we passed the lady working behind the counter, who was talking to a man standing nearby.  She asked me, "Did you enjoy the museum?"  I told her that I loved it and was glad that we stopped by.  She pointed to the man she was talking to and said, "Well, here's the owner of the place."  We talked for about thirty minutes about the Clarksdale scene and blues in general.  I think I met the biggest blues fan of all on Saturday, and his name is Theo Dasbach.  I actually got goose bumps listening to him talk about how much he loved the blues.

During the discussion, it came up that I reviewed blues CDs at Blues Bytes, so he ran out to his car and brought me a copy of his latest CD, Blue Boogie, to review in a future issue.  I will have more details about it in a few weeks here, and later at Blues Bytes, but let me tell you that it's a really entertaining and diverse set of blues and boogie.  He wrote all the songs and he sings and plays a mean piano.

There wasn't much music going on that night in town, the 15-year-old blues guitar phenom Christone "Kingfish" Ingram was playing much later that night at Red's, but we had to get back home.  We drove back through the Delta, listening to the blues and taking in the atmosphere.

Ground Zero Blues Club

Clarksdale is making a great effort to help put the Mississippi blues on the map, and it seems to be working pretty well.  There's so much more here for blues fans to take in than the last time I was here 20 years ago.  This is due to the efforts of many of the city's residents, such as Stolle, Dasbach, Clarksdale Mayor Bill Luckett, who, with Morgan Freeman and Howard Stovall, owns the the Ground Zero Blues Club, Jeff Konkel with his Broke & Hungry record label and the documentaries, Red Peden, and so many others in town that I've yet to meet, but am looking forward to seeing when we go back to the Juke Joint Festival next spring.