Friday, January 29, 2016

Blues & Food

Earlier this week, I grabbed my copy of Mel Brown's Neck Bones & Caviar CD and played it in my truck for a couple of days while driving back and forth to work (I hope to do a whole post on the late, great Mr. Brown, one of the finest blues guitarists of his time, soon).  While I was listening, I got to thinking about how many blues songs were tied in to food and/or drink, so here's a few of my favorites.

While there wasn't a "Neck Bones & Caviar" tune on Brown's album, he did record a few tunes about food, such as the dandy instrumental, "Chicken Fat," the title track of an album that featured him with another impressive guitarist, jazz picker Herb Ellis.  (Useless Trivia Time......Ellis once played the venerable band leader Bobby Fleet on The Andy Griffith Show in the early 60's and also played guitar for Redd Foxx on a Sanford and Son that tidbit and amaze your friends sometime down the road).

One of my all-time favorites, which makes me hungry every time I hear it, is Dan Penn's "Memphis Women & Chicken."  Penn wrote this tune for his magnificent 1994 release, Do Right Man, which is one of the finest blue-eyed soul albums ever.  Penn is a songwriter of the highest caliber (see "Dark End of The Street," "You Left The Water Running," "Zero Willpower," "It Tears Me Up," and "I'm Your Puppet," among others, all lovingly recreated by Penn on this album), but is also a highly underrated performer himself, with a pure and soulful vocal style.  Check out this mouth-watering tune, with harmonica from none other than Delbert McClinton, and see if you're able to make it all the way through the song without heading for your pantry or refrigerator.

There are a few Zydeco tunes about food that I always like to hear, which is appropriate, since "zydeco" actually means "Snap Bean" in Cajun French (how's that for a tie-in).  Perhaps my favorite Zydeco group is Nathan & the Zydeco Cha Chas.  Nathan Williams was heavily influenced by the King of Zydeco, Mr. Clifton Chenier, and has dutifully continued playing in Chenier's traditional fashion, but he also mixes in more modern influences like soul and funk.  Williams has recorded multiple songs about food over his career, but I really enjoy his "Everything on the Hog," a tune that he recorded on his live CD at New Orleans Rock 'N Bowl, a great club/restaurant/bowling alley combo that is a favorite in the Crescent City.  You'll notice that he cover pretty much "everything on the hog" with this tune.

Speaking of Zydeco and snap bean, check out one of the new rising stars on the scene, Lil' Brian Terry and his band, the Zydeco Travelers.  On his 1995 debut release, Fresh, he not only incorporated soul and funk like Nathan Williams, but he also mixed in a healthy dose of hip-hop, which was guaranteed to attract droves of younger listeners, and most certainly did.  One of the hottest tracks on that debut album was a electrifying instrumental entitled, appropriately enough, "Snap Bean."  This one will work off a few winter pounds at your next party.

Let's go from Louisiana to the Windy City and another "Lil'" guy.......Lil' Ed Williams and the Blues Imperials.  I got to see this band years ago, not long after their first release with Alligator, Roughhousin'.  They were trying out some new material and this was one of them.......the title track for their next album, "Chicken, Gravy, & Biscuits."  It was a crowd favorite then, and it still is.  Like Ed and the Imperials, I could eat 'em all night long.  It's pretty obvious that Ed did the right thing back in the 80's, when he gave up his gig working at the car wash to become a full-time musician.  If you get the chance, you must see these guys in action.  Their loyal legion of followers are affectionately known as "Ed Heads."

Staying in Chicago, here's the late, great sax man A.C. Reed.  The Missouri native was a longtime member of Albert Collins' Icebreakers, and also played in Buddy Guy's band and for Son Seals but also managed to put together a few songs of his own over the years.  He made a career of his own with his band, the Spark Plugs, as he sang many of his own songs about his frustrations with the music business.  His last album, for Delmark Records in the late 90's, was called Junk Food, and the lively title track was a fresh take on food with a nice modern twist.  Reed stayed pretty busy all the way until his death in 2004, from cancer.

Let's keep things jumping with a tune from another sax man, R&B legend Louis Jordan.  Jordan was "The Man" during the 40's and had a long string of hits, many of which are still popular today....."Choo Choo Ch'Boogie," "Saturday Night Fish Fry," "Let The Good Times Roll," "Caldonia," and this tune, "Beans & Corn Bread."  I actually first heard this song as the theme song on the Dinner & A Movie program that used to run on WTBS-TV every Friday night.  Louis Jordan and his Tympany Five were one of the key links between blues/R&B and rock & roll.  Their music is always a blast to listen to, guaranteed to put a smile on your face and a hop in your step.  

Let's revisit the earlier "Biscuit" theme with Memphis Gold, also known as Chester Chandler.  He learned guitar from the Reverend Robert Wilkins (of "The Prodigal Son" and "That's No Way To Get Along" fame), and served a productive tenure with one of Memphis' foremost bands, The Fieldstones.  Now a resident of Washington, D.C., Memphis Gold has the ideal mix of Memphis soul and traditional blues in the vein of Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, and Howlin' Wolf.  I believe he's capable of writing a song about anything.  I really enjoyed his fourth release in 2012, Pickin' In High Cotton, which featured the irresistible "Biscuit Boogie," a mouthwatering track about one of nature's most perfect foods.  If this one doesn't make you grab a basket of biscuits and a can of molasses, you should seek counseling.

Finally, let's sign off with an instrumental that pays tribute to the beverage of choice at most blues venues......."Cold Beer, Good Time," from Memphis stalwart Preston Shannon.  Shannon is one of the icons of the Beale Street blues scene and he's renowned for mixing down and dirty blues with greasy Memphis soul and his band is one of the Bluff City's best.  I don't know about y'all, but all this talk about food has made me hungry.

Friday, January 22, 2016

Delmark Deluxe

One of my favorite labels, dating back to when I first discovered the blues, is Delmark Records.  FBF devoted an entire post to the label about two years ago.  Over it's 60+ year history, Delmark has released several essential blues albums (jazz, too) that should be required listening for any discriminating blues fan (we listed ten essentials on our previous post, but there are many, many more to choose from).  Not only is their catalog impressive, but Delmark continues to release top notch music from the next generation of artists on the scene like Toronzo Cannon, Omar Coleman, Mike Wheeler, Sharon Lewis, Lurrie Bell, and many others.

Several years ago, Delmark began releasing "Deluxe Editions" of some of their classic recordings, releasing the original album with remastered sound, adding multiple alternate tracks (some previously unreleased), expanded liner notes (along with the originals), studio banter, and previously unseen photographs from the sessions.  A pair of Junior Wells classics (Hoodoo Man Blues and Southside Blues Jam) have received the Deluxe treatment in years past with satisfying results, and Delmark added to the list this year with another pair of classics.......J.B. Hutto's Hawk Squat and Magic Sam's Black Magic.  Even if you have the original releases, you are strongly encouraged to check out these expanded versions.

J.B. Hutto was a disciple of slide guitar legend Elmore James and played with the same manic intensity and energy as his musical ancestor, sometimes maybe even exceeding James in his performances.  As a live performer, his shows were legendary with his flamboyant suits and hats and playing in the middle of his audience, his distinctive vocals and his blistering slide guitar.  After launching a recording and performing career in the 50's, Hutto left the business for about ten years before returning with a vengeance in the mid 60's and tearing it up on stage and in the studio for the next decade and a half before succumbing to cancer in 1983 at age 57.

Hutto's first foray in the studio after his comeback was as part of the Chicago!  The Blues!  Today! series on Vanguard Records, but he quickly moved to Delmark, where he released Hawk Squat in 1968.  Recognized as one of the finest examples of 60's-era Chicago blues, Hawk Squat was inducted into the Blues Foundation's Hall of Fame as a Classic of Blues Recordings, and deservedly so.

Hutto was joined by the Windy City blues icon Sunnyland Slim on piano and his bandwhich included Lee Jackson on guitar, three bass players (Dave Myers, Herman Hassell and future Teardrop Junior Pettis), drummer Frank Kirkland, and tenor sax man Maurice McIntyre, who was working at Delmark head man Bob Koester's Jazz Record Mart at the time.

The original 12 tracks that made up Hawk Squat sound as great as previously.  One of the best things about the original release was it's "live in the studio" feel.  One of the other great things is Hutto's guitar playing on tracks like "Hip Shakin'," "Speak My Mind," "20% Alcohol," and the title track which brings the original album to a spirited conclusion.

The Deluxe Edition includes six previously unreleased tunes, among them five strong alternate takes of tracks that made the album the first time around.  The last track is an unissued song called "I Cry Tomorrow," and it's a least as close as Hutto ever got to singing a ballad.

The previously unreleased tunes add about twenty minutes of good music to an already great album and, with the remastered sound, make Hawk Squat worth hearing again for fans of slide guitar who probably already have the original in their collection.

Hutto's been gone for over 30 years, but if you're a blues fan, you're probably familiar with his nephew, Lil' Ed Williams of Lil' Ed & the Blues Imperials.  Williams not only plays like his uncle, but he has the same stylish fashion sense and ready smile, so J.B. Hutto's musical legacy definitely lives on.

In 1969, Magic Sam was on his way.  His appearance at the Ann Arbor Blues Festival earned him a spot at many festivals in the U.S. and Europe.  Black Magic had just been released to rave reviews, and he and his management had talked Delmark into agreeing to speed up the recording of his third, and final, album for the label, thereby allowing him to sign with Stax Records.  Just a few days later, on December 1st, he was dead from a heart attack at age 32.  Years of hard living, relentless touring, and just plain bad luck had taken a toll on his health and he refused to slow down.

Black Magic was a worthy follow-up to West Side Soul, Sam's debut for Delmark, considered by many to be one of the finest Chicago blues albums ever recorded.  Truthfully, to these ears, Black Magic is every bit as formidable an album as its predecessor.  Sam brought back a couple of the musicians from West Side Soul - guitarist Mighty Joe Young and drummer Odie Payne, Jr.  He added bass player Mack Thompson (brother of Syl and Jimmy Johnson), the criminally underrated piano player Lafayette Leake, and tenor saxophonist Eddie Shaw, longtime member of Howlin' Wolf's band.

The original album features some of Sam's finest work.  The raucous opener, Rosco Gordon's "I Just Want A Little Bit" includes some great sax from Shaw and guitar solos from Sam and Young.  Sam also remakes his Cobra hit "Easy Baby."  Other standouts include "What Have I Done Wrong," "You Belong To Me," and the B.B. King-esque "I Have The Same Old Blues."  There's also a smoking cover of Freddy King's "San-Ho-Zay," and the old Otis Rush tune, "Keep Loving Me Baby," and Willie Cobbs' "You Don't Love Me."

The Deluxe Edition includes eight alternate tracks.  Six of them are alternate versions of the album's original tracks, and have been previously available on Delmark's 1989 collection, The Magic Sam Legacy.  The other two tracks have never been released, and are also alternate tracks.  One of the things that I've enjoyed about these alternate tracks on all of the Deluxe Editions is that they are nearly as good, or as good, as the tracks that made the final cut.  I can't imagine how difficult it was to pick which cuts to use, and how much fun it was to listen to all of them.

The accompanying booklet includes additional liner notes and previously unseen photos from the session, plus a never-before-seen color photo of Sam at Ann Arbor.

Nowadays the mix of 50's urban-styled blues and 60's-era soul seems a bit old hat, but that's because most everybody really started doing it after Magic Sam built the prototype.  Soul music had really taken off in the 60's and blues artists really merged it into their music as a way to keep things fresh and vital and maintain their fan base.  No question Sam was one of the first to do this and one of the best, even now, thanks to his perfect combination of guitar skills to burn and an incredibly soulful voice.  Black Magic shows just how good he was, and we're left to wonder how good he would have been

If you're a blues fan at all, especially a fan of these artists, any of Delmark's Deluxe Editions are essential listening, like most of the label's remaining catalog of blues recordings.

Friday, January 15, 2016


Last year, FBF did a post on all of the blues artists who passed away in 2014.  After posting it, I realized that I left several artists off the list, thanks to some readers who were helpful enough to let me know.  This year, I started another post, but there were so many gaps in my list that I decided against finishing it, at least for now until I'm able to get a more complete list.  Maybe in a few weeks, I may be able to get the list more to my satisfaction, at least enough to do a post.

In the meantime........over the past couple of weeks, music fans have seen several musicians pass away.  Sometimes it seems like when it rains, it pours, but over the last week, we've lost a major pop music star with links to the blues.......David Bowie (January 10th) and the blues world also lost two major players as well........Long John Hunter (January 4th) and Otis Clay (January 8th).

I first heard Long John Hunter on his initial release for Alligator, 1996's Border Town Legend, and I was hooked.  Hunter's music was pretty basic and simple.  Albert Collins' once said, "Simple music is the hardest music to play and blues is simple music."  It's the mark of a master bluesman when he can take the most basic of blues and play it like no one else can.  Magic Slim had that quality, for sure, and truthfully, so did Long John Hunter's music idol, B.B. King.

Hunter was born in Louisiana and raised in Arkansas, but he ended up in Beaumont, TX working at a box factory in his early 20's.  He went to a B.B. King concert and his whole world changed.  He was amazed at the reception that King got, especially from the women in the audience.  He bought a guitar the next day and soon taught himself how to play, forming a band within the week.  Soon, he was headlining at the club where he saw King play.

Hunter tried recording in the mid 50's, cutting a pair of sides for Duke Records and spending some time playing there before moving to El Paso and becoming the headliner at the Lobby Bar in Juarez, Mexico for the next 13 years, seven nights a week from dark to daylight.  He recorded a few more sides for the Yucca label in the early 60's, collected on Ooh Wee Pretty Baby in 1999.  Hunter's guitar style was a combination of King, Albert Collins, and Gatemouth Brown, but with his own unique spin.

Lonnie Brooks, Long John Hunter, Phillip Walker

Hunter recorded Ride With Me for Spindletop Records in the early 90's, an excellent release which eventually led to his signing with Alligator and releasing two more solo albums (Border Town Legend from 1996 and 1997's Swinging From The Rafters).  The label also reissued Ride With Me to allow it more exposure than it received upon initial release.  All three of these albums are worth having.  He also released a collaborative effort with two artists who cited him as influences, Lonnie Brooks and Phillip Walker.  Lone Star Shootout was an enormously entertaining album and was something of a sequel to another Alligator collaboration from a few years earlier, Showdown!

Hunter didn't record as frequently in the 21st Century, releasing only two albums, One Foot In Texas (with his brother Tom) in 2003 and 2009's Looking For A Party.  He retired from performing in 2011 and settled in Phoenix, where he died at home on January 4th at age 84.  If you missed out on Long John Hunter's music, you really missed a treat.

The news that Otis Clay passed away on Friday night really knocked me for a loop.  From the first time I heard him sing "Trying To Live My Life Without You," in the late 80's on a Hi Records compilation, he was my favorite vocalist.  He was just an incredibly passionate singer, whether singing his righteous brand of deep southern soul and blues or his beloved gospel tunes.  He sounded like he felt every note he sang deep in his heart.  I've heard a lot of singers in my time that were very good at what they did, but Otis Clay just always took it to another level, as far as I was concerned.

 Clay was born in Waxhaw, MS on February 11, 1942, but moved with his family to Muncie, Indiana when he was a youth.  The church was always a big part of his life growing up and he joined a gospel group in Muncie.  In 1957, his family moved to Chicago and Clay became a member of the Golden Jubilaires, but he was also interested in performing secular music.  When he was 20, he recorded some R&B tracks in the hopes of selling them to a major label, but the sides were not released.  In 1965, he signed with One-Derful! Records, after being introduced to the label head by fellow gospel singer Maurice Dollison (later known as blues/R&B artist Cash McCall).  Clay released some impressive singles for the label that seamlessly merged soul and gospel, such as "That's How It Is (When You're In Love)" and "A Lasting Love."  These tracks were later collected on Testify! in 2003.

When One-Derful! folded, Clay's contract was sold to Atlantic Records and he was placed on their new subsidiary, Cotillion and was the first artist to record on that label, with a powerful cover of the Sir Douglas Quintet's "She's About A Mover."  Some of his later sides for Cotillion were produced by Willie Mitchell, which started a great partnership and helped guide Clay to Hi Records, where Mitchell was a producer.  In 1972, "Trying To Live My Life Without You" was his first release and was his biggest hit.  Many music fans, like me, probably first heard this song when Bob Seger's cover made it into the pop Top Ten in the early 80's.  Clay recorded for Hi from 1972 - 1977 and had many memorable tunes, such as "I Die A Little Each Day," "If I Could Reach Out (And Help Somebody)," "Hard Working Woman," and "Precious Precious," but Hi's primary focus was on Al Green, so Clay and other Hi artists like Syl Johnson, O.V. Wright, and Ann Peebles were sort of relegated to the background.  The cream of Clay's Hi recordings have been collected on Best of the Hi Records Years.

By the late 70's, Clay was recording for the Kayvette label, and later on his own label, Echo Records.  He cut a fantastic live album, Soul Man:  Live in Japan, for Rooster Blues in 1983 (Clay enjoyed a phenomenal following in Japan) that was later reissued on Rounder's Bullseye Blues label in 1991.  A couple of years later, he released two excellent studio albums for Bullseye (I'll Treat You Right in 1992 and This Time Around in 1998), the second one being produced by Mitchell.

During this time, Clay also continued to record gospel songs, releasing sets for Bullseye and Blind Pig in the early 90's (On My Way Home and The Gospel Truth, both in 1993) and Walk A Mile In My Shoes in 2007 on his Echo label.  Someone on Facebook stated last week that it seemed like Clay sang at nearly every blues man or woman's funeral over the past few years.  He did perform a stirring "When The Gates Swing Open" at B.B. King's funeral last May, and that song was a favorite of many of his fans.

Clay also recorded a live album for Blind Pig (Respect Yourself) at the 2003 Lucerne Blues Festival in Switzerland that was released in 2005 and in 2013, he released Truth Is:  Putting Love Back Into the Music on Echo.  Since then, he's recorded duet albums with Johnny Rawls (2014's Soul Brothers) and most recently with Billy Price (2015's This Time For Real), and over the years, he appeared on albums from The Bo-Keys, Dave Specter, Calvin Owens, and many others.

Clay was preparing for a upcoming tour when he died suddenly of a heart attack last Friday night.  Over the weekend, Facebook was blowing up with testimonies and tributes about him, citing his kind and gentle spirit, his generosity and devotion to local causes and charities in Chicago, and his unending devotion to soul, blues, and gospel music.  I was friends with Clay on Facebook and talked to him a couple of times on there, the last time to complement him on his singing at King's funeral.  He was always cordial and always gracious.  He will be much missed in the blues community by fans and fellow musicians alike.  If you're not familiar with Otis Clay's music, any of the albums cited above are a great place to start.

Though he wasn't usually associated with the blues, blues fans owe David Bowie a debt of gratitude.  When I first started listening to music seriously in the early/mid 70's, I became familiar with David Bowie's music.....mostly after his "Ziggy Stardust" days, though.  He had several songs that were played on the radio....."Changes," "Fame," "Golden Years," "Rebel Rebel," and "Young Americans."  I liked all of these songs, but he changed so often, hence the nickname "Pop Chameleon," that it was sort of hard for me to really keep up with him.  There were certain styles I liked then, more in the R&B/pop vein and I was pretty rigid in those "likes" at the time....not wavering from that path for very much of anything, so I did miss out, and not just on Bowie, but other groups that I've since gone back and rediscovered.  Thank goodness the passage of time clears the head and the ears.

Bowie, Vaughan, and Let's Dance producer Nile Rodgers

One of Bowie's albums that really got a lot of attention was released when I was in college.  Let's Dance was all over the radio, the TV (via MTV's constant airing of his videos), and on many stereos and turntables.  The title track was a major hit, and a couple of other songs followed suit...."China Girl" and "Modern Love."  In 1982, Bowie had been impressed by a American band called Double Trouble that was performing at the Montreux Festival, particularly their guitarist, Stevie Ray Vaughan.  Bowie asked Vaughan to play on his upcoming album, Let's Dance, and the young guitarist's foot was in the door (the Montreux appearance was very beneficial for the band......Jackson Browne also heard them and offered them free recording time in his studio, which is how and where Texas Flood was recorded in 1983).  The clip below is from rehearsals for Bowie's Serious Moonlight tour (May to December, 1983), with SRV on guitar.  Vaughan eventually dropped out, some say because of contract negotiations......I remember reading at the time that Vaughan left because Double Trouble was originally slated to open for Bowie, but the offer was withdrawn and he refused to go without them.

Whether you're a fan of Bowie or not, you have to acknowledge that he was a tremendous influence on modern pop music, especially during the 70's.  I've backtracked over the years and listened to more of his music, even discovering that the first two or three bands he was a member of were actually blue bands.....the King Bees, the Manish Boys, and the Lower Third.  His musical vision was pretty amazing, especially when one considers the number of artists he influenced over an extended period of time.  However, blues fans should forever be grateful for his choosing of Stevie Ray Vaughan to play on one of his best-selling albums, helping the guitarist and his band get their start (by the way, when Bowie was recording music for the movie Labyrinth in the mid 80's, he employed another guitarist for a song...the Iceman Albert Collins).

Friday, January 8, 2016

Something Old, Something New, Something Borrowed, Something Blue #17

Once again, it's time for one of FBF's oldest and favorite topics, dating back to the pre-blog days when I used to email a few blues songs to my friends every Friday morning.  This week, we will look at four artists, one that hails back to days of yore (Something Old), a relative newcomer to the genre or a new release (Something New), a blues artist taking a song from another genre, or vice versa (Something Borrowed), and finally, an artist who, to me is the essence and epitome of the Blues (Something Blue).  Let's get started, shall we......

For Something Old, here's Eddie Cusic.  Cusic passed away in August, but he served as an interesting and unique link between traditional and contemporary blues.  He was born near Leland, MS in 1926 and, like many of his peers, he started out playing a diddley bow before graduating to an electric guitar, playing during the early 50's with a trio called the Rhythm Aces, one of whom was Little Milton Campbell, who Cusic taught to play guitar when he was a kid.  After serving in the army, Cusic settled down and began working days at a Ford plant and later for the USDA at a meat packing plant.  During that time, he often accompanied James "Son" Thomas and the duo actually recorded a song for an anthology in the mid 70's, but Cusic had to step away from music for financial reasons and began to work full time at a quarry, where he worked until his retirement in 1989.

Upon retirement, Cusic began playing again, this time using an acoustic guitar, so he actually transitioned from electric to acoustic, unlike many of his peers, who did just the opposite.  He appeared regularly at various festivals in Mississippi and even the Chicago Blues Festival and became quite popular.  He even released a "field recording" of sorts in the late 90's, called I Want To Boogie, which featured his interpretations of several blues classics.  If you've not heard it, you're missing a great disc of Mississippi Delta blues (It's available as I Want To Boogie on HighTone Records or as Leland Mississippi Blues on Wolf Records). Here's Cusic's cover of the Chicago blues classic "Cut You Loose."  Cusic provided a nice bridge between the old classic blues and the blues of today.


For Something New, blues guitarists don't come much "newer" than Andy Poxon, who recently broke into his 20's and already has three albums under his belt.  He may look a bit like Opie Taylor, but this youngster is a force to be reckoned with on guitar and is also a talented vocalist and a rapidly developing songwriter, having written many of the song on his albums.  He's released three albums so far, his first one at age 16, and his most recent release is Must Be Crazy, on EllerSoul Records, which was co-produced by Kevin McKendree and is a real winner.  Poxon is not only versed in the blues, but he also mixes jazz, R&B, and swing.  You are strongly encouraged to check out this great young guitarist, who is definitely on the fast track to stardom with his talents.  See below......

For Something Borrowed, let's check out another Andy.......Andy Santana,  The West Coast-based guitarist has been performing since the 70's.  He sings and plays guitar and harmonica.  He's fronted the West Coast Playboys and the Soul Drivers for a long time, throwing in the occasional recording, including his recent Delta Groove release, Watch Your Step.  While he plays a lot of West Coast-styled blues, which is a combination of Texas and Chicago blues, he also plays a lot of New Orleans R&B, including several great tunes on this album, including a couple of tunes by one of my Crescent City favorites, Smiley Lewis.  Watch Your Step made FBF's Top Twenty list last week, and is actually in our Top Ten.  I really enjoyed the combination of blues and R&B on this release and hope to hear more from him soon.   

For Something Blue, look no further than the late, great Magic Sam.  Delmark is releasing a "Deluxe Edition" of Sam's final studio release, Black Magic, this Friday.  This edition features the ten original tracks remastered from the original analog tapes, six alternate tracks, plus two previously unissued tracks.  To many other listeners, Magic Sam's two Delmark albums provided the template for modern blues, mixing blues with the urban soul sounds of the day.  Friday Blues Fix will be taking a deeper look at the Deluxe Editions of both of Sam's albums in the near future, but in the meantime, here's one of my favorite tunes from Black Magic, the opening cut, "I Just Want A Little Bit," which features Sam with sax man Eddie Shaw and guitarist Mighty Joe Young.

Friday, January 1, 2016

FBF's Top Twenty Blues Albums for 2015

Happy New Year to all!!!  This week, Friday Blues Fix presents our Top Twenty new blues albums of 2015.  This was a fantastic year for new releases and it was EXTREMELY difficult to narrow it down to that number.  There were over 150 new releases that I got to hear this year and nearly all of them were top notch.  I received most of them for review and in the upcoming January issue of Blues Bytes, all of the reviewers' Top Ten will be listed, including mine.  Today's FBF post will feature my twenty favorites (in alphabetical order) and, if you are interested, you can check Blues Bytes in a few weeks to see which of mine (and the other reviewers') made the Top Ten.

Bill Abel - Celestial Train (self-released):  If you're looking for the basic, hardcore Mississippi blues, this is an excellent place to start.  Abel, who has played with many of the area's legendary artists, can play anything with strings on it, and play it very well.  He switches from acoustic to electric guitar, dobro, and his own cigar-box guitars, mixing the Delta and Hill Country blues in equal doses.  This disc offers eleven tracks, seven originals and four covers and there's plenty for blues fans to enjoy on this release, which Abel is selling at his gigs and also at CD Baby.  Seek this one out at all costs.

Bernard Allison - In The Mix (Jazzhaus Records):  For Allison's first studio release in six years, the guitarist flavors his blues with funk, soul, and R&B, with a tantalizing mix of originals and covers from a wide range of artists (Colin James, Tyrone Davis, Freddy King, and a pair of his dad's songs).  Allison's mom even co-wrote one of the tracks with her son.  Allison doesn't completely move away from the powerful guitar work he's noted for (there's some particularly fine slide guitar), but there's more focus on the songs and the grooves this time around, which is a good thing.  Vocally, he's at the top of his game and really does an excellent job with these tunes.  When FBF talked to Allison earlier this year, he said that this album represents the music he grew up listening to and that this was the first real opportunity he's had to record it.  It's obvious from listening that this project was a labor of love for him.  Listeners will definitely agree.


Bey Paule Band - Not Goin' Away (Blue Dot Records):  This is twelve tracks of soul/blues heaven.  Though the band changed their name (from the Frank Bey and Anthony Paule Band), their sound remains as powerful as ever.  The band itself, led by the first-rate guitar skills of Paule, has a seamless musical rapport, but the presence of Bey, one of the finest soul singers currently practicing, and makes a great band even greater.  Anyone who calls themselves a soul/blues fan should have this CD in their collection, no question.

Jimmy Burns - It Ain't Right (Delmark Records):   From the first time, I heard Jimmy Burns, on his astonishing Delmark debut Leaving Here Walking, I have enjoyed his distinctive mix of the urban blues and soul of his adopted home of Chicago with the traditional blues sounds of his native Mississippi.  His soulful vocals are just the icing on the cake for me (he released some memorable 45s of Chicago soul and blues in the 50's and also performed gospel as a teenager).  On this disc, his fifth for Delmark, it all comes together perfectly.  It Ain't Right has fifteen tracks, mostly covers, and it's just not enough, with Burns covering tunes from Jimmy Reed, Percy Mayfield, Goree Carter, Bobby Stone, Little Walter, and a complete reworking of the Junior Wells standard, "Messin' With The Kid."  He even revisits his gospel roots with "Wade In The Water."  If you're a blues fan and you're not on board with Jimmy Burns (FBF covered him, along with his late brother Eddie here a few years ago), you are missing out on some of the best blues being produced right now.

Eddie Cotton - One At A Time (DeChamp Records):  Cotton had a pretty big 2015, winning the Band category at this year's IBC and releasing this gem of a CD, his second for Grady Champion's label.  He wrote all fourteen of these tracks and they mix blues and Memphis-styled soul (circa 70's Hi Records) in fairly equal measures.  The whole session has a relaxed feel and great interplay between Cotton and the band.  He's never sounded better vocally or on guitar, which is really saying something.  Check out "Ego At The Door," one of the best Hi Records singles that never was.  It's hard to top Cotton's two live discs at the Alamo Theatre, but this is easily his best studio release to date.  

Bert Deivert & Copperhead Run - Blood In My Eyes For You (Rootsy Music):  Deivert plays guitar and mandolin, but focuses on the latter instrument for this excellent release, on which he's backed by the Swedish band Copperhead Run.  He covers ten tracks that cover the blues from the early days of the blues (tunes by Son House, Big Joe Williams, four wonderful Sleepy John Estes tunes) to more recent fare from R.L. Burnside, Paul "Wine" Jones, and mandolin pioneer  Yank Rachell.  Deivert also contributes two originals that blend in seamlessly.  There's not a lot of blues mandolin albums out there, at least from new artists, which is a shame. For fans familar or unfamiliar with it, this is a great album that's worth finding.

Ronnie Earl & the Broadcasters - Father's Day (Stony Plain Records):  Earl's recordings are consistently fine, and have been since the late 70's.  For this release, his ninth for Stony Plain, Earl changes things up a bit.  Where most of his previous releases were largely instrumental, Father's Day features vocalists on all but one of the thirteen tracks (Michael Ledbetter from Nick Moss' band and Diane Blue).  Earl also employs a full horn section for the first time in years.  The tunes include covers from Otis Rush, Magic Sam, B.B. King, Van McCoy, Fats Domino, Brook Benton, and Rev. Thomas A. Dorsey.  While one might assume that the vocals might take away some of Earl's soloing space, that's not really the case at all.  He makes the most of his opportunities and you'll be hard pressed to find a blues guitarist who plays with as much intensity and soul as Earl.  This is a disc that should be in any blues guitar fan's collection.

Anthony Garaci & the  Boston Blues All-Stars - Fifty Shades of Blue (Delta Groove Music):  Geraci, longtime keyboardist for Sugar Ray & the Bluetones, stretches out on his own for this outstanding release, employing his Bluetones bandmates, including guitarist "Monster" Mike Welch, and vocalists Darrell Nullisch, Michelle "Evil Gal" Willson, who duets with Bluetones boss Sugar Ray Norcia on the title track.  Garaci wrote all thirteen tracks and there's not a bad one in the bunch.  Norcia sings six tracks and Nullisch takes three vocals, and Willson and Washington take a track apiece, while Garaci and band take center stage for two great instrumentals, including a tribute to the late David Maxwell.  This is a superlative set of modern blues that shows Geraci to be a fine songwriter and arranger.  

Buddy Guy - Born To Play Guitar (Silvertone/RCA Records):  Guy's releases have sometimes been hit or miss for me, but his last few, which have found him teaming up with producer/drummer/composer Tom Hambridge, have worked pretty well for the most part.  This latest release is the best of their collaborations, and one of Guy's strongest, most consistent CDs in recent years.  As usual, there are a few guest stars aboard (ZZ Top's Billy Gibbons, Fab T-Bird Kim Wilson, Joss Stone, Doyle Bramhall II, and Van Morrison), but they worked really well together.  It doesn't hurt a bit that there's a great set of original tunes, courtesy of Hambridge (who co-wrote a few with Guy) and Guy does an excellent job singing them.  The guitar part you already know disappointments there.  He sings and plays with a passion and conviction that belies his nearly 80 years of age.  Frankly, I just hope I'm still above ground at that age.  Guy has moved to the Senior ranks of blues musicians over the past few years, but apparently nobody has advised him of this yet.

Ghost Town Blues Band - Hard Road To Hoe (self-released):  During our Ten Questions With GTBB guitarist/singer Matt Isbell, I stated that I couldn't imagine a blues fan not liking this disc.  It's loaded with great original tunes and great music, and there's plenty for fans of traditional blues, blues-rock, roots, Southern rock, Hill Country, and even Memphis-flavored blues and soul.  I played this disc probably as much as any I listened to this year.  GTBB mixes those above-mentioned genres together so well that you'll find yourself hitting "Replay" quite a few times, and you'll probably be checking to see if they will be playing in a town near you.....their live shows are the stuff of legend.  By all means, check out this great disc.

Beth McKee - Sugarcane Revival (Swampgirl Music):  On her latest release, Ms. McKee's roots are showing......her musical roots, that is, that encompass Louisiana, Texas, and her native Mississippi.  This time around, the singer/songwriter offers her best and most personal songs, all powered by one of the best voices currently practicing in the blues world.  She's joined by a standout set of musicians, including her husband, Juan Perez, on drums, guitarists Tony Battaglia and Subdude Tommy Malone, and former Evangeline bandmate Rhonda Lohmeyer.  The biggest challenge for most listeners will be in deciding which of these outstanding thirteen tracks is their favorite......the best kind of problem to have when listening to any disc.  McKee opted to go the Kickstarter route this time around, a trend that seems to be producing some excellent recordings these days, because it allows artists to do things the way they want to do them and record the songs they want to record.  This album has "Labor of Love" written all over it, and I think it's her best one yet.

David Michael Miller - Same Soil (Food For The Soul Records):  This is a superlative effort from the Buffalo-based singer/guitarist, impressively topping his previous release, the critically acclaimed Poisons Sipped from 2014.  Like its predecessor, Same Soil blends blues, R&B, soul, and gospel and pays tribute to the blues masters that influenced Miller......Muddy Waters, Jimmy Reed, etc....  He's as good a vocalist as you'll find these days, with soul and grit to burn.  Miller opened a lot of eyes and ears with his 2014 release, but Same Soil should be the disc that puts him on the Blues map to stay.

Andy Santana - Watch Your Step! (Delta Groove Music):  This one really grabbed me.  It's not only loaded with blues of the Chicago, Texas, and West Coast varieties, but there's also some great New Orleans-styled R&B thrown in for good measure.  Santana has been a part of the California blues scene since the 70's, but has recorded sporadically over the years.  Made up of mostly covers (including the Bobby Parker title track, a pair of Smiley Lewis tunes, and songs from Sir Mack Rice, Carol Fran, and Chuck Willis), Santana does mix in some cool originals, including a fantastic instrumental that features five guitarists....Santana, producer Kid Andersen, Bob Welsh, Anthony Paule, and Mighty Mike Schermer).  There's plenty of great music for blues fans, R&B fans, and old-school rockers to enjoy.

Ian Siegal - The Picnic Sessions (Nugene Records):  British blues-rocker Siegal teamed with Luther and Cody Dickinson, Jimbo Mathus, and Alvin Youngblood Hart for this riveting set recorded over a couple of days following the 2013 Mississippi Hill Country Picnic around Oxford, MS.  Marvelously ragged and relaxed, the five just sat around playing whatever stringed instrument was in reach and played whatever songs came to mind.....a few of which were written/revised on the spot.  Siegal's weather-worn vocals are charming and the music is mighty fine, all recorded at the Dickinsons' Zebra Ranch Studio using vintage equipment.  Hopefully, these guys will get together again after the next Picnic.

Sista Jean & CB - Requiem for a Heavyweight:  A Tribute to Odetta (Freckled Bandit Records):  This talented duo (singer Jean McClain and guitarist Carlyle Barriteau) pays tribute to the folk/blues legend with a dozen tracks recorded by and/or influenced by her.  As a child, McClain was influenced by Odetta and that is obvious as you hear her spirited vocals on these songs.  The styles range from blues to folk to gospel and most listeners will spot familir songs on here that they didn't realize were performed by Odetta years ago.  McClain's vocals are a big selling point for the disc, but you can't leave out Barriteau's guitar work.  He complements McClain so well with his understated guitar  The best thing about this duo is the way they let songs patiently unfold and develop on their own.  If you're a blues fan and you've not heard Sista Jean & CB, do so immediately.  You are missing a real treat.

Brad Vickers & His Vestapolitans - That's What They Say (ManHatTone Records):  I've been on board with the Vestapolitans since I reviewed their 2008 debut release and we did Ten Questions With Brad Vickers a couple of years ago.  The group has specialized in a tantalizing hybrid of blues, folk, rag, and old time rock & roll and they mix remakes of classic tunes with excellent original tunes.  Their new release is their sixth and to these ears, it's their best yet, with thirteen original tunes out of fifteen total.  I really enjoy the way that they recreate these classic music styles, breathing new life into classic music while remaining faithful to the original sources.  This is a very entertaining release.

John Earl Walker - Mustang Blues (Walkright Music):  Walker recorded this CD after a couple of years of tribulation for him and his band.  He lost his home and nearly all of his possessions during Hurricane Sandy in 2012, and his longtime rhythm guitarist passed away the next year.  This is his sixth album of powerhouse blues-rock and his most inspired.  Walker's been on the music scene for over 50 years and is one of the most underrated guitarists out there.  He really turns in a solid set of tunes on Mustang Blues as well, including a slow blues about his struggles with the storm ("Superstorm Sandy Blues"), the humorous title track, and several unique and personal views of familiar blues topics.....infidelity, revenge, and making changes in life.  There's also plenty of opportunities for him to show off his string-bending skills.  We dug deeper into this new album, and Walker's other music, when he sat down with FBF for Ten Questions.

Leo "Bud" Welch - I Don't Prefer No Blues (Big Legal Mess Records):  When Welch signed with Big Legal Mess to do his gospel/blues album Sabougla Voices, he agreed to follow up with a straight blues album.  The 83-year-old Welch grew up playing the blues at picnics, parties, juke joints, and clubs, but eventually began playing in the church while retaining that down home blues sound.  That quality is likely what made his gospel album so compelling to blues fans.  If that's the case, they should be beside themselves with this release, which keeps the raw urgency of its predecessor as Welch offers his interpretation of some old Mississippi blues classics with his grungy guitar and his gritty vocals front and center.  Even with guest musicians like Jimbo Mathus and Sharde' Thomas on hand to assist, it's hard to get past Welch himself.  It took a long time for Welch to finally get the opportunity to record, but he's made the most of it, and hopefully, he'll get the chance again soon (Go here for FBF's look at Welch's music from this past summer).

Webb Wilder - Mississippi Moderne (Landslide Records):  I've been hearing about Webb Wilder for years down here in Mississippi.  The Hattiesburg native got his career cranked up in the mid 80's and he appeared regularly in the Magnolia State.  He has also lived and worked in Austin and Nashville and has absorbed the music and influences from all three locales.  Throw in a taste of British Invasion-era rock & roll and you've got a potent mix.  Mississippi Moderne is Wilder's first release in six years, and like it's predecessors, it shows that the line between Robert Johnson, Chuck Berry, and Buck Owens is pretty thin.  In fact, there's samples of all three styles present on this release, both originals from Wilder and covers from the likes of Johnson, Otis Rush, Frankie Lee Sims, Charlie Rich, Conway Twitty, and Ray Davies.  How's that for diversity?  If you're new to Wilder's musical charms, this is a good place to start, but odds are that you won't be stopping there.

Mike Zito & the Wheel - Keep Coming Back (Ruf Records):  I was saddened to hear that Zito was leaving Royal Southern Brotherhood to focus on his solo career, but if he keeps making albums like this, I should be fine.  This set features some of his most honest and personal songs (three of the ten were co-written with Anders Osborne, who also guests on one of the tracks), dealing with events that marked his past, present, and future life.  He's always been a top notch songwriter, but these are among his best.  He's always loved rock and country and those genres have always been a big part of his blues and that's the case on this release as well.  He owns one of the best voices in the business, capably handling the soulful tunes and the rootsy rockers with ease, and can blow the doors off the place with his guitar.  This is essential stuff, especially for blues rockers.

Honorable Mention (also in alphabetical order)

Barbara Blue - Memphis Blue:  Sweet, Strong, & Tight (Big Blue Records)
Omar Coleman - Born and Raised (Delmark Records)
Crooked Eye Tommy - Butterflies & Snakes (self-released)
Chris Daniels & the Kings - Funky To The Bone (Moon Voyage Records)
Tinsley Ellis - Tough Love (Heartfixer Music)
Samantha Fish - Wild Heart (Ruf Records)
Jeff Jensen - Morose Elephant (Swingsuit Records)
The Peterson Brothers (Blue Point Records)
Kern Pratt - Broken Chains (Gigtime Records)
The Ragpicker String Band (Yellow Dog Records)
Duke Robillard - The Acoustic Blues and Roots of...(Stony Plain)
Mr. Sipp - The Mississippi Blues Child (Malaco Records)