I hope everyone had a great Christmas last weekend. Things were very good here in Far East Mississippi, but unfortunately the weather has followed typical Mississippi winter standards by having several days with temperatures peaking in the mid/upper 40's followed by days approaching 80 degrees. Though this has happened frequently this winter, your humble correspondent finally fell prey to the requisite sinus infection in a major way on Christmas Day, so this post may be shorter than my usual Top 20 posts, so I hope you'll understand. I'm trying to work on it a little bit at a time during the week.
2016 saw some excellent releases on the blues side of the record aisle. I reviewed roughly about 180 albums this year and it was really difficult to pare it down to just a Top 20. In a few short weeks, Blues Bytes will be featuring each of their reviewers' Top 10 albums for the year, so you can follow up from here to see my Top 10.
So, without further delay, here are FBF's Top 20 Blues releases for 2016......listed in alphabetical order:
Lurrie Bell - Can't Shake This Feeling (Delmark Records): This is another marvelous release from this Chicago guitarist who has overcome numerous obstacles to reach near-legendary status. Bell covers several Chicago classics and adds a few of his own compositions
The Bo-Keys - Heartaches By The Number(Omnivore Recordings): For their third release, this Memphis ensemble adds a full-time vocalist (Percy Wiggins) and dives into the music of their neighbor to the east in Nashville, covering a host of country music standards, plus a few that could have been. This should prove once and for all that the line between country, soul, and the blues is razor-thin.
Toronzo Cannon - The Chicago Way (Alligator Records): Cannon's Alligator debut release lets the rest of the world know what a lot of his fans have known for a while......he's one of the most electrifying songwriters and performers to come around in a long time. He makes the most of this opportunity, turning in one of the finest blues albums to hit the airwaves in a while.
Luther Dickinson - Blues & Ballads (A Folksinger's Songbook, Volumes 1 & 2)(New West Records): A musical autobiography of sorts, Dickinson collects 21 traditional folk or blues-based songs he's written himself or learned from friends and family members. There are guest stars and highlights galore. No music lover should be without this disc.
The Fabulous Thunderbirds - Strong Like That (Severn Records): The T-Birds continue their journey through the soul side of the blues. Kim Wilson sounds great on this set of mostly soul covers and he gets great support from T-Birds guitarist Johnny Moeller, guest Anson Funderburgh, and the fabulous Severn house band. Hopefully, Wilson and the band will continue this musical direction for a few more albums.
The Fremonts - Alligator (Truax Records): One of my favorite groups comes through with another great set of old school swamp blues and R&B and Mississippi Delta blues. Recorded live in the studio and mixed in mono, this set really captures the vintage sounds of the old Excello recordings.
Cee Cee James - Stripped Down & Surrendered(FWG Records): While Cee Cee James may be "stripped down" on this effort, she has by no means "surrendered." Nobody pours as much of their soul into their music. She has lived or is living these lyrics to the hilt. No one does it quite like her and she has the perfect musical partner in guitarist/husband Rob "Slideboy" Andrews, whose fretwork is equally inspired.
Dennis Jones - Both Sides Of The Track(Blue Rock Records): I'm not sure why Dennis Jones isn't a bigger deal. He's released five excellent powerhouse blues rock albums since 2003. He's a great guitarist and singer, and he's a very good songwriter, too. This release should be the one that puts in on the "must hear" list.....it's loaded with what blues fans hunger for.
Dave Keller - Right Back Atcha (Tastee Tone Records): For his latest release, Keller returned to his home state of Vermont and recorded with his working band. He wrote or co-wrote all but one of the tunes and they find him in a much better place in his personal life. He's regarded as one of the best voices in the blues and soul fields these days, but he's a formidable guitarist as well. If you're not on board with Dave Keller yet, this is a great place to get started. You'll find out more about Mr. Keller in a few weeks.
Guy King - Truth (Delmark Records): I've been following Guy King a long time, dating back to when I heard his distinctive guitar work on a Willie Kent CD. I was thrilled to read where he had signed with Delmark, who released this wonderful set earlier this year. King acknowledges his influences by covering tunes by Ray Charles and Percy Mayfield and B.B. and Albert King. He also collaborates with musical biographer David Ritz on several tasty originals. This is a diverse, well-rounded set that will get a lot of replays on your media player of choice. Check out our Ten Questions with Guy right here when you get a chance.
The King Brothers - Get Up And Shake It(Club Savoy Entertainment Group): Last week, FBF posted about the King Brothers' latest and their other releases. Their new one is a great set that refuses to leave my stereo. Mostly covers, but the Kings add their own unique touch to these familiar classics. Lee and Sam King have got themselves a winner with this disc. If you didn't check it out after last week's post, we're giving you another opportunity to do so. You can thank me later.
Brian Langlinais - Right Hand Road(Patoutville Records): This excellent release is the result of Langlinais and his fellow musicians being stranded in the singer/guitarist's native Lafayette, LA. It went from a group of guys laying down a few cover tunes in the studio to developing into a full-fledged album of rocking roadhouse blues tunes. There's plenty of deep south, Gulf Coast-influenced blues and R&B on this set. Check out our Ten Questions With Brian from a couple of months ago, and check out this disc at your first opportunity.
John Long - Stand Your Ground (Delta Groove Music): An impressive effort from the man Muddy Waters called "the best young country blues artist playing today" back in the 70's. Muddy knew of what he spoke, but most people may not be familiar with Long because he doesn't make it into the studio that much. When he does, however, it's certainly worth hearing. Long covers tunes from pre-war artists like Blind Willie Johnson, Blind Willie McTell, and his musical mentor Homesick James Williamson, but his original tunes sound just like they were penned during the same era. This is a masterwork from an American musical treasure.
Trudy Lynn - I'll Sing The Blues For You (Connor Ray Music): An internet friend of mine from Houston turned me onto Ms. Trudy Lynn (among other great Houston-based blues artists) back in the late 90's. I'm sure glad that he did. She's one of the finest blues singers around. She's enjoyed a productive stint with Connor Ray Music and this release is one of her best. She tackles a great set of blues classics and she's backed by an excellent band. Ms. Trudy never disappoints and this set is no exception.
Elam McKnight - Radio (Big Black Hand Music): I've been listening to Elam McKnight for a long time now, and it's been really cool watching him develop his sound. He's explored Hill Country blues, Delta blues, deep southern soul, rock, pop, country, and gospel over his previous releases, but with this one, he brings everything together in a big way. All of his releases are daring and different approaches to the blues and there's always a "WOW" moment mixed in. This one will put a hop in your step for sure.
Reggie Wayne Morris - Don't Bring Me Daylight (Blue Jay Sound): Fifteen years have passed since Morris' last album released and the Baltimore-based guitarist shows that he hasn't lost a step during that time......he's worked hard on the festival circuit in the interim. This release has a mix of slick urban blues in a B.B. King vein and smooth southern soul. Morris has the voice and the guitar skills to easily handle both. The whole CD has a great old school feel to it and should satisfy both blues and soul fans.
Johnny Rawls - Tiger In A Cage (Catfood Records): This is as good as modern soul/blues gets. Rawls has always had the ability to recreate the best parts of classic Hi/Stax-era soul while keeping things in the modern perspective as well. His music appeals to both longtime soul/blues fans and newcomers. Great new songs that pay tribute to the 70's era soul men like Bobby Womack and Marvin Gaye combined with covers of classic tunes by Sam Cooke, Jackie Wilson, and the Rolling Stones.
The Rolling Stones - Blue & Lonesome(Interscope Records): I rambled on about the upcoming release of this album a few weeks ago, pointing out that the Stones have long acknowledged their debt to the blues. They started out playing the blues and this album brings them full circle. It's actually their first all-blues album, and it developed out of the blue (sorry) when they were trying out a new studio and cranked up a version of Little Walter's "Blue & Lonesome." What was sort of neat to me is how the Stones are now as old or older than their musical influences all those years ago. They've been playing this music as long or longer than many of their influences did. They do a masterful job on this set of Chicago blues chestnuts and, with any luck, they will open the door to even more fans checking out the original sources.
Robert Lee "Lil' Poochie" Watson & Hezekiah Early - Natchez Burnin' (Broke & Hungry Records): Watson and Early are veterans of the Natchez, MS blues scene and the Mississippi and Louisiana festival circuits. They play acoustic and electric Delta blues, New Orleans-styled R&B, rock n' roll, and soul. Though this is their first recording together, they've collaborated for years and it shows on this set. Anyone who likes traditional Mississippi blues will want this in their collection.
Tweed Funk - Come Together(Tweed Tone Records): Tweed Funk just gets better and better. This set will make vintage soul fans happy and probably make new and old listeners alike wonder why this music went out of style in the first place. Tweed Funk makes it sound like it never went away with their awesome horn section, nasty and funky rhythm section and the impeccable vocals of "Smokey" Holman. I had a blast listening to this one, and you will, too.
Fifteen or sixteen years ago, I was wandering through my local record store in search of some new blues albums. I happened to stumble onto a album by a group called The King Brothers called Turnin' Up The Heat. It was on a record label, Vent Records, that was based about 150 miles away in Birmingham, AL. I had previously purchased a pretty darn good album from Vent Records by an Arkansas-based guitarist named Michael Burks, so I decided to give The King Brothers a spin.
It proved to be a wise decision on my part. The brothers managed to combine their love of the blues with a fierce rock and funk mix that really lifted their original songs above your average fare. Turnin' Up The Heat was a couple of years old when I picked it up, but it really got my attention and got me to looking for their second release, Mo' Heat, which had been issued on Hard Attack Records around 2001, but I wasn't able to track it down. Still, Turnin' Up The Heat managed to get fairly steady rotation on my playlist over the years, and I always figured I'd be able to track down their next release.
A couple of months ago, I was not only able to finally get to hear Mo' Heat, but also their newest release, the excellent Get Up and Shake It, the brothers' first release in about fifteen years. Where the duo's first two releases were all originals compositions, their latest album consists of the brothers' imaginative recreations of seven blues classics, along with three King Brothers originals, two of which are instrumentals.
The King Brothers are guitarist/vocalist Lee King and drummer/vocalist Sam King. The brothers have been playing together since elementary school.......about 60 years, give or take. Later on, brother Lee began playing with Ike Turner and Big Joe Turner, and later they joined up to back Albert King, Lowell Fulson, Jimmy McCracklin, and their second cousin, Freddie King. McCracklin, in particular, was a big influence on the youngsters, as much for his wardrobe as for his music, but their muscular, guitar-driven attack brings to mind another pair of Kings.....Albert and Freddie.
Both brothers appeared on Albert King's classic Blues at Sunrise album, and Albert King presented Lee King with his prize guitar, Lucy, in 1992, just a few days before he passed away......a proverbial passing of the torch. Lee King played the guitar extensively on Turnin' Up The Heat and recalled:
"We were hanging around in the dressing room when Albert came off stage. He told me he wasn't feeling well and said he might have to go to the hospital to have some bypass work done. Then he gave me the guitar and said, 'Here, take this thing and play it.' I was shocked. I grabbed him and hugged him, but he kind of turned away because he wasn't the hugging type. Then they called him out to do an encore, and he took the guitar back and told me and Sam to come with him. We stood back in the wings and then he motioned for us to come out. He gave me the guitar again, in front of everybody. Again, I was shocked. I didn't know how to thank him enough, but he told me that he just wanted me to carry on the blues. And that's what I'm doing."
Passing the torch: Albert King and Lee King, December, 1992
The brothers were raised in the San Francisco Bay area, but they have a firm and unique grasp on the music that makes it feel like they were born and raised down south in the land where the blues began, a quality that eludes many other performers of similar talent. When asked to describe their brand of blues music, Lee King explained,
"It's danceable, it's rock-flavored, funk-flavored, and gospel-flavored. I don't know a damn thing about picking cotton; I don't drink whiskey; I don't dip snuff; I don't fit into any of those bluesman stereotypes. I do blues the way I feel it."
Turnin' Up the Heat was a big surprise to many blues fans when it hit stores in the mid 90's. It mixed the genres that Lee King mentions above and did so with some very strong original songs. When Mo' Heat followed a few years later, it improved on all the high points of its predecessor.
Though the duo didn't return to the studio for an extended period, they didn't exactly sit back and relax. They continued to perform during that time span and hone their craft. Though many of the songs on Get Up And Shake It will be familiar to seasoned blues fans ("Hoochie Coochie Man," "Rock Me Baby ," and a couple of tunes previously recorded by their cousin Freddie....."Bigg Legged Woman" and "Tore Down"), the brothers take these songs to new places with Lee's powerhouse guitar work and Sam's propulsive drumming.
There are a few less familiar covers, too. Bobby Rush's "Blind Snake" is really cool, and there's also a sharp take on the rocker "Hound Dog," and the Willie Dixon favorite "Close To You" is well done, too. The three originals include two covers, "Just Driving Around" and the title track, both of which blend blues, funk, and jazz in extended jams that will get toes to tapping and heads to bobbing. The third original, "Just The Way I Like It," is heavy on the funk/R&B side, too, and is a nice showcase for Lee King's vocals.
The Golden Gate Blues Society gave this album their Best Self-Produced CD award and the album will be entered into the 2017 IBC in Memphis under the same category next January.
It was really great to see that The King Brothers had returned to the studio. I really enjoyed their debut release all those years ago, and to finally hear their follow-up, not to mention finding out that they were still actively performing and recording......well, all I can do is strongly recommend that you check out The King Brothers' catalog of recordings.....and look for Get Up And Shake It next week when FBF reveals its Top 20 Albums of 2017.
Believe it or not, this is the 20th Something Old, Something New, Something Borrowed, Something Blue post for Friday Blues Fix. This has been one of our favorite themes over the years, dating back to FBF's early days as a weekly email to co-workers. For those unfamiliar with the format, we offer a song from the early days of the blues (Something Old), a song from a recent blues artist (Something New), a blues artist covering a rock song or vice versa (Something Borrowed), and finally, someone who epitomizes the blues.....usually a legendary artist (Something Blue).
This time around, we're going to do something a little different.....actually we did it a while back and it was fun to do, so here we go again. What we're going to do is take one particular song, a blues classic, and show four variations of it. This time around, we're going to be looking at a song written by Willie Dixon, called "Spoonful." Now, you may associate that tune with Howlin' Wolf, and you'd be correct in assuming that.....but there's more to it than meets the eye, and it's interesting to see who else has covered it in their own unique fashion.
Willie Dixon actually derived "Spoonful" from a couple of earlier songs that date back to the early recording days of the blues. The earliest song was Papa Charlie Jackson's "All I Want Is A Spoonful," and in 1927...."Cocaine Blues," by Luke Jordan. The song that Dixon's version most strongly resembles is Charley Patton's "A Spoonful Blues," which he recorded in 1929 for Paramount Records. The lyrics of the song use "a spoonful" as a metaphor for the cravings and desires of men, usually sex, love, alcohol, or drugs, and the numerous, sometimes dangerous and deadly ways they try to find and satisfy those cravings. For "Something Old," here is the harrowing "A Spoonful Blues," from Charley Patton, one of the most influential of all blues men.
In 2015, guitarist Joe Bonamassa performed a tribute concert at Red Rocks Amphitheater in Colorado for Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf. He set it up as a fund-raiser for his Keeping the Blues Alive Foundation. There was an album released of the concert, Muddy Wolf at Red Rocks, which was broken down into three parts, a Waters set, a Wolf set, and a Bonamassa set. Bonamassa's Wolf set included a roaring version of "Spoonful," which will serve as "Something New" for us this week. In addition to the music, there are snippets of interviews with Waters and Wolf included, so it provides a bit of history to the two blues legends.
In 2010, Robert Plant formed a new band, the Sensational Shape Shifters. The former Led Zeppelin front man and his band mates frequently mixed rock with blues, folk, reggae, and world music during their fabled career, but with his new band, he does even more, even covering many of his Led Zeppelin hits in interesting and unique ways. After hearing a recent set, I wondered how these bands who had popular songs some thirty or forty years ago were able to continue to play them without a staleness or going-through-the-motions vibe kicking in. I think this is how Robert Plant does it, by playing around with the musical arrangements or the instrumentation, or even the vocal delivery. I guess you can only play "Whole Lotta Love," so many times without it getting routine. Anyway, Plant and his new group released a download-only live album, Sensational Space Shifters, in 2012. It included a mix of Plant's solo work, Zep's hits, and a few "borrowed" tunes, one of them being, you guessed it, "Spoonful," which makes it our "Something Borrowed" tune this week.
Howlin' Wolf and Hubert Sumlin
Of course, "Something Blue" has to be Howlin' Wolf, the man who made the song famous with his powerful rendition in 1960. The first time I ever heard "Spoonful" was on the late 60's version from Cream on my college roommate's Eric Clapton compilation album. When I heard the Wolf's version, it was on a Chess Records anthology cassette in the late 80's, a collection that featured two tracks from the Wolf....this one and "Smokestack Lightning," Needless to say, it was an electrifying experience for a blues neophyte and it put Cream's version far in the rear view mirror.
I'd never really heard anyone sing like the Wolf, but there were other things that made this song special, such as Hubert Sumlin's stinging, steely guitar, Willie Dixon's throbbing double bass, and Otis Spann's skittering piano runs. The Wolf's raspy, harrowing vocals, though, were what put this song over the top. There have been many covers of this song over the years......Etta James, Jimmy Witherspoon, Canned Heat, Ten Years After, George Thorogood, Delbert McClinton, the Grateful Dead, and many, many others, but none of them come close to approaching the intensity and ferocity of Wolf's version.
Interesting tidbit to consider.......Otis Rush once reported that Dixon first offered him "Spoonful," but it didn't suit Rush's tastes, so Dixon offered it to Wolf. Probably a good move on everyone involved's part. Rush might have turned in a strong version himself, but there's no question that this song was MADE for Howlin' Wolf.
Well, for most of our readers, fall will soon turn into winter.....it's in the middle of doing just that here in Far East Mississippi, with temps in the low 40's during the daytime, which might not mean so much to our readers to the north, but down here, if it gets in the low 30's and starts raining, we run out of bread, milk, and eggs in all the stores and driving gets absolutely chaotic if there's a trace of ice or an inch of snow on the roadways. We just don't have to deal with it that much, so when we do, it's always interesting.
Anyway, as promised a few weeks ago, FBF is back with another set of upcoming releases that have hit or will soon hit the stores this fall. This has been a great year for new releases and here are eight more new releases that would be excellent stocking stuffers for the blues fans in your families. As always, expanded reviews of these new CDs can be found in current or upcoming issues of Blues Bytes, THE monthly online magazine of blues CD reviews.
Elam McKnight - Radio (Big Black Hand Records): A few months ago, I previewed this release, singing its praises based on the various sneak previews I'd heard. McKnight has assembled a great band....45-year juke joint vet Dudley Harris on vocals, guitar, and bass and veteran rock n' roll drummer Eddie Phillips on drums.....and these guys really rock the house. He merges all of his musical influences on these tracks, rock, soul, pop, country, and gospel with his brand of Delta and Hill Country blues.
This is McKnight's best batch of songs yet, and he sings and plays these songs like his life depends on it. Harris chips in on a few of these songs and is supposed to be getting his own release on Big Black Hand soon......should be a good one. Elam McKnight is taking the blues in new, exciting, and sometimes unexpected directions. I've been a fan since I heard his first CD (Braid My Hair) many moons ago and I can safely say that Radio is his best release yet. I'm excited to see the direction he takes with his next release. It won't be boring.....that's for sure.
Cee Cee James - Stripped Down & Surrendered (FWG Records): To me, no performer.....repeat, NO ONE.....puts as much of themselves into their craft as Cee Cee James does. Longtime readers of FBF will be familiar with Ms. James via her two Ten Questions segments from a couple of years ago here and here, so they will know what I'm talking about. Her blues are so personal and so intense that you have to believe that she leaves a piece of her soul in everything she writes or sings. I've been listening to music a long time.....a LOT of music....and she never ceases to amaze me with the intensity she brings to her performances.
James' new release is, as the title indicates, a bit more low key.....at least instrumentally. James' still brings her white-hot intensity to these songs. They cover a lot of ground....despair, desperation, hope, salvation, and redemption. She really bares her soul on some of these tracks, reliving past despairs and struggles with personal demons, but through it all, she perseveres and gains a bit of salvation. The struggles she's endured actually serve to increase and expand her own personal character and make her appreciate the good that's there now, probably more so than she would have otherwise. This is, like all of Cee Cee's releases, a rewarding listen. Also, I can't say enough about her husband/musical partner, Rob "Slideboy" Andrews' amazing guitar work throughout. Check this one out if you want to hear the real, unvarnished, unadulterated blues.
Tom "The Suit" Forst - On Fire(Factory Underground Records): Back in 2008, Thomas Forst was a Regional VP for a major communication company, but he gave all of that up to pursue a music career. He's performed hundreds of shows (his "The Suit" nickname comes from his habit of wearing a suit on stage) and has released a pair of albums, one as part of The Jason Gisser Band and the other as the NYC blues trio Suit Ty Thirrsty.
His solo debut shows guitar chops to die for, plus strong vocals and a clever touch as a songwriter. He touches on familiar blues themes, but throws in a twist or two. He also offers three cover tunes from Joe Walsh, Howlin' Wolf, and Marvin Gaye. How's that for versatility??!! At 65 , Forst plays and sings with an energy and exuberance of a man half his age. Look for good things ahead for this talented guitarist.
Ronnie Earl and the Broadcasters - Maxwell Street (Stony Plain Records): Earl's new disc is not named for the famous street in Chicago, but for the late pianist (and former Broadcaster) Dave Maxwell, who died last year at age 71. On the back cover of this release, Earl describes it as an "album of traditional, healing and soulful blues rooted in gratitude." If you're familiar with any of Earl's recent recordings, you have a good idea of what's ahead.
With ten songs, six originals and four covers, Earl delivers on that promise. Half of the tracks are instrumental and Earl tiptoes easily between the blues and jazz as always. His guitar work is so lyrical and at times breathtaking. There's a fine tribute to the legendary T-Bone Walker, and a couple of tributes to Maxwell, one from Earl and one from keyboardist Dave Limina. Singer Diane Blue contributes vocals on five tracks, one original written by Earl and four diverse covers of tunes ranging from Otis Rush to Albert King to Gladys Knight to Eddy Arnold. Earl's backing on these tracks is just perfect. Maxwell Street is a keeper if you're a fan of blues or jazz guitar played well.
Little Mike - How Long? (ELROB Reccords): Little Mike Markowitz took a 15-year hiatus awhile back to help raise his family, but has returned to the music scene with a vengeance the past few years, recording two albums with his band, the Tornadoes, a live release, and a collaboration with Chicago singer Zora Young. Now, he's releasing a solo album, though several guest artists are Tornado alumni.
There's nothing fancy here......just old school blues like they used to do them in the 50's and early 60's. Little Mike doubles up on harmonica and keyboards and really gets plenty of room to strut his stuff on several instrumental tracks. The set list is divided between a few fine Markowitz originals and a few dandy covers that will be familiar to most blues fans. Blues fans who dig the sounds of vintage Chicago blues will dig this excellent set of classic blues that's been updated for modern ears.
Liz Mandeville - The Stars Motel (Blue Kitty Music): This disc, three years in the making, features singer/guitarist Mandeville with four great guitarists. Three of the four were passing through Chicago for gigs and stayed overnight in Mandeville's home studio. In return, each co-wrote and recorded three songs with Mandeville for a future album. The three visiting guitarists were Oklahoma's Scott Ellison, Italian fret wizard Dario Lombardo, and Miami-based Rachelle Coba. To complete the album, Mandeville recruited her former guitarist Minoru Maruyama to contribute a pair of songs.
The resulting eleven songs cover a lot of ground, ranging from Windy City-styled shuffles, New Orleans-flavored R&B, soulful ballads, and after-hours urban blues. Mandeville ably handles vocals and plays guitar, bass, washboard on selected tracks. Each of the guitarists contribute first-rate material and provide some excellent guitar work. Mandeville is one of the most consistent artists on the current Chicago blues scene, with a great body of work. The Stars Motel is no exception and ranks with her best releases. Please keep Liz in your thoughts and prayers, as she recovers from injuries suffered in a recent head-on collision while driving home from a gig around Thanksgiving.
The Temprees - From The Heart (Point 3 Records): The Temprees' history dates back to the mid-60's, where they started as The Lovemen.....lead singer "Jabbo" Phillips, "Scotty" Scott, "Del" Calvin, and Larry Dodson, who soon departed to front The Bar Kays. The remaining trio signed with Stax Records as The Temprees and enjoyed some success in the early 70's with a cover of "Dedicated to the One I Love" and "Love Maze." Though the hits stopped soon after, The Temprees continued to perform until Phillips passed away in 2001.
The group recently reunited with a new singer, Walter "Bo" Washington, and released this fine set of old school soul and R&B. It's pretty obvious right off the bat that the gang has lost little to nothing off their fastball since their heyday, and have joined up with producer/composer Angelo Earl to recreate that classic sound. They mix it up well between slower numbers and upbeat numbers which add funk and hip-hop influences. For anyone who loves these classic sounds, From The Heartwill be musical nirvana.
Vaneese Thomas - The Long Journey Home(Segue Records): Speaking of Memphis, here's Vaneese Thomas. Her musical credentials are impeccable. Her father is Memphis music legend Rufus Thomas, and her siblings Carla and Marvell are a big part of Memphis soul history as well. Vaneese herself enjoyed some success on the R&B charts in the late 80's, but has built her reputation for the most part as a session vocalist for scores of rock and R&B stars. She's also worked in film and
television and as a producer, arranger, and songwriter.
A few years ago, she decided to focus on the blues and released a fine tribute disc to her father back in 2013 which featured a duet with her father and her sister. This new release focuses on her hometown and its rich musical culture. Several of the songs recall the glory days of Stax and Hi Records, along with the city's varied blues styles, which go from rock to countrified to soul. While Thomas' original songs are very good, she turns in a magnificent performance on an amazing cover of Fleetwood Mac's "The Chain." This is a really powerful set of music that pushes the music of Memphis into new and interesting directions.'
Over the past few months, your humble correspondent has seen a large number of releases by female blues artists. All of them have been excellent and each release easily blends other styles with the blues, whether it's old school R&B, jazz, folk, rock, country, gospel, and even hip-hop, not to mention the various styles of blues that are touched on. The end result with each release has been a fresh, new perspective on the blues itself.
This week, FBF sits down with six of the ladies who have just released brand new albums. Some of them you may be familiar with, others you may not, but I'm pretty comfortable promising that you will soon be wanting to hear more from each of them. I've been really impressed with each of these ladies and their different approaches to singing the blues. Not only will we find out about their new releases (and hear a few tracks from each), but you'll get to know a bit more about them beyond their music. Friday Blues Fix thanks all of these ladies for taking time to answer our Ten Questions. So, without further ado......
Ten Questions With.......Kat Riggins, Lex Grey, Holly Hyatt, Sari Schorr, Teresa James, and Gina Sicilia Friday Blues
Fix: For starters, would you ladies like
to share with our readers a little bit about your latest projects?
Kat Riggins: Sure! On August 4th I released my Blues Revival album. Of the 10 songs on
the album, 2 are covers chosen for their sentiment and groove, while the other
8 I wrote. They blend traditional blues with some elements of gospel, southern
rock and even hints of hip-hop. “Blues
Is the New Black”, for example, is an up-tempo tune about blues music making a
comeback. The lyrics are set in a foot stompin’ celebration of gospel drums and
bass with blues guitar holding it all together.
“Good Girl Blues” is about cutting loose from society’s expectations of
what a proper young lady is and just enjoying life. In it you can pick up on
hints of urban drums and funk bass. Then there are songs like “Queen Bee” and
“Wail Away,” which are straight forward blues grooves all the way!
Lex Grey: In addition to the recent release of Heal My Soul and its great response, I
am inspired to keep writing, recording and of course, performing live!
Holly Hyatt: I am currently touring and promoting my
third CD Shufflin the Blues, release
with Jon Burden. The CD was recorded live at the Silverton Gallery in BC (a
great old heritage building). It is a mix of Chicago blues, acoustic blues,
some covers and original songs. It has been getting great reviews and airplay,
and I have had a lot of fun promoting it.
Sari Schorr: We’ve just released A Force of Nature
worldwide in September on Manhaton Records. The album is produced by legendary
blues pioneer Mike Vernon, whose credits include Fleetwood Mac, John Mayall
& the Blues Breakers, David Bowie, Savoy Brown, Chicken Shack, Eric
Clapton, Peter Green, Christine McVie and Ten Years After. This album is my life’s
work and I’m immensely grateful to all the musicians who gave so generously of
their time and talents. It’s an honor to have Walter Trout, Innes Sibun, Oli
Brown and John Baggott featured on the album.
I never imagined A Force of Nature would hit #1 in
the UK! I also never thought I’d be on magazine covers or nominated for two
European Blues Awards. It’s an unexpected reward for all the years I’ve
dedicated myself to the Blues.
Teresa James: I am very excited about my new CD, Bonafide – my husband, Terry Wilson, has
written some great songs for it and I have been blessed to have some amazing
players on it… we have been working on it for a long time, so I am very happy
with the way it came out…
Gina Sicilia: I'm really proud of my latest project, which
is my sixth studio release, and what I believe is my best music to date. It's a
5-song EP called Sunset Avenue. I
recorded it on Philadelphia with my producer Glenn Barratt. It features some
amazingly talented musicians from Philly and Detroit and definitely has a cool
soul vibe. I'm very proud of the original songs, which are extremely personal,
possibly my most personal songs up to this point. They're all true stories.
That's the direction I definitely want to keep going in, because I have a lot
more stories to tell. I'll be releasing the full-length follow up early next
year on Blue Élan Records.
FBF: What is your favorite song on your latest
album and why is it your favorite?
Kat Riggins: All of the songs mean something special
to me, but since I can only choose one I’d say “Murphy’s Law”. It’s meant to be
sort of an inspirational anthem that encourages people to take ownership of
their fate and not just chalk up everything that goes wrong in life to that old
adage. It’s about learning and growing
from those things and doing better as a result.
Lex Grey: Each time I think about that question I
have a different favorite. That has also
been true with our audience. One song
does not stand out above the others, they are all a different scene in a very
personal movie. This week my favorite is
“Heal My Soul” since we just released this video filmed throughout Brooklyn,
including one of my favorite haunts, Coney Island.
Holly Hyatt: My favorite song is “Black Crow”. It was
co-written with Jon and was just one of those songs that came together
effortlessly. I always enjoy performing that song because it allows me to dip
into the genres of Jazz and Folk. I can really focus on the poetic lyrics and
how I want to portray them with my voice.
Sari Schorr: I don’t have a favorite song on the
album. They are all extensions of myself. That being said, different songs at
different times have a greater resonance. It’s my birthday today and I am
feeling a deep sense of gratitude for everything I have and so blessed for all
the wonderful people who have come into my life. The song I wrote in Germany,
“Ordinary Life” is speaking to me now.
Teresa James: Hmmm. There are a couple that I really
love – the title cut, ‘Bonafide’ is probably my favorite – both to listen to
and to sing. It has such a cool rhythmic thing going on and I love the attitude
of the lyric. We were very fortunate to have Jay Bellarose play drums on it –
he has such a unique style and it added a little different flavor that I just
love. I also really like the 5 Royales tune that opens the record - 'I Like It
Like That' - too much fun.
Gina Sicilia: That would be a song I wrote called “Never
Gonna End.” It's a laid back, soulful
tune with a definite pop sensibility. I'm proud not only of the melody because
I think it's catchy, but also if the lyrics. They're simple but written about
something important, which is the political and social divide that's happening
in America. It's pretty ugly and getting worse every day, especially with our
recent election. The specific things that inspired me to write these lyrics are
The Black Lives Matters movement as well as the debate over the Confederate
Flag that happened in the aftermath of the Charleston, South Carolina church shooting
in 2015. I wrote this song about the racial divide in America, but because of
the lyrics, a lot of people are under the impression that it's about a
relationship. It's basically an observation of what's happening and how they
are, as the lyrics say, never gonna end.
FBF: What is it about music, and the blues in
particular, that led you to become a performer?
Kat Riggins: Music has always been a constant in my
life. It is one of the few things in life that is. Blues music has a voice that
mine can relate to! It can be as in your face or as subtle as it wants to
be. There’s a power behind the rawness
and honesty of the blues that can’t be denied. That’s why I’m in love with it.
I know that my purpose is to spread that love in order to help keep the genre
alive. God would have given me a much different voice than the one that I have
if I was meant to sing anything else!
Lex Grey: I have always loved seeing live music of
all kinds but the pure earthiness of the Blues has always drawn me in. From the
very first time I saw a concert, I knew that I wanted to be on stage expressing
Holly Hyatt: I have been singing and playing bass from
a young age, so music has always felt really natural for me. I received a vocal
scholarship while in high school, singing with the big band and went on to
study voice privately for 3 years. Then after graduating high school I went on
to study Jazz at college, majoring in voice and performance. The whole time I
was also playing a lot of gigs and writing songs. So becoming a performer has
been a very natural progression. I was exposed to a lot of blues music while I
was growing up and it just spoke to something inside of my soul. Even as a child I knew blues was real music,
full of feeling, passion and life. The first song I wrote was a slow blues
about my pet rooster, called “Freddie’s Blues.”
Sari Schorr: I’ve always considered myself a
storyteller. I’m drawn to the Blues because there’s a pureness in the music
that allows an honest dialogue to happen between the performer and the
Teresa James: When I was a kid I studied classical
piano and had aspirations of being a classical pianist and then when I was
around 11 years old I heard Janis Joplin singing “Ball and Chain” and it was
all over. That was the first time I had ever heard anyone singing with that
kind of passion and I knew right then that I wanted to sing and play the blues.
Gina Sicilia: Well I've been singing my whole life. I can't
remember a time when I didn't want to be a singer and I've always been a huge
music lover. It's just always moved me beyond description and there's nothing
else I've ever wanted to do. When I was around 13 or 14 years old I discovered
Blues and Soul. That music just felt instantly familiar to me. It's hard to
describe the feeling, but it just spoke to me and even though it was new to me,
it felt like I had been listening to it my entire life.
FBF: Do any of you come from musically-inclined
family backgrounds? What did your
families do to help you achieve your goals along the way?
Kat Riggins: Well, everyone on my father’s side possesses
some musical talent. Almost all of them can sing their butts off! A few are
blessed with the talent to play instruments also. On my mom’s side everyone can dance! So my
house was always jumpin’!!! Though no one in my family was “in the biz”, I have
always gotten tremendous support from them. I was always encouraged to audition
for this or that as a child. Their faces filled the audience! Even now that I’m
singing for a living, the support continues.
I’m grateful for that!
Lex Grey: Not only are there no musicians in my
family, I was constantly discouraged from pursuing a life in the arts. Maybe that's why I have fought for my dream
Holly Hyatt: I always say music is in my blood. I was
a road baby, born and bred into the music business. My Dad is a professional
musician and I grew up going to his gigs and listening to him play guitar at
home. My maternal Grandfather was a musician, who could play multiple
instruments and built violins. My Great Grandmother was also an amazing
musician who played violin in the orchestra pits for the silent movies. So yes
music is a huge part of my family! My
Dad got me up on stage around age 6, put me in vocal lessons and even borrowed
a bass from his friend so I could play with the school band in Grade 5. I am
blessed with a wonderful, supportive family. They have helped me to achieve my
goals in more ways than I can mention.
Sari Schorr: My family was always very supportive. My
mom was a fashion model, my dad an Air Force pilot. They believed in me and
that helped me believe in myself. There was always music playing in the house
from my dad’s huge record collection. He loved jazz, rock and R&B. But, it
was my grandmother, Bertha who really encouraged me to be a singer. It was her
dream, sadly she was forbidden and forced to become a bookkeeper. I carry on in
Teresa James: There was always music playing at my
house - my folks had an amazing collection of records and a wide variety of
music that they listened to. My dad played a little guitar and they would have
'hootenannies' where they would have their friends over to play and sing. Both
of my parents were very supportive of my music as I was growing up and even
today, my 93 year old dad comes to almost every one of my gigs.
Gina Sicilia: I come from a family of music lovers and my
dad and brother are both musically talented. My brother is a great
multi-instrumentalist, with his primary instrument being piano, and he's also a
great singer. My dad loves music and also plays accordion. There was also
music of all kinds being played in the house when I was growing up, and its
influence in me was enormous.
FBF: Who do each of you list as musical
influences……songwriters, singers, musicians?
Kat Riggins: There are so many!!! I gotta say, Tina Turner, Koko Taylor, Janis
Joplin, Gladys Knight, Betty Wright, Sam Cooke, Donny Hathaway, Ray Charles…
honestly there are too many to list!
Lex Grey: I love the old school blues women,
Billie, Bessie, Etta, Ella, Ma Rainey, when I first heard Nina Simone I nearly
died. I love lyricists and poets that
give you a window on their world. Leonard Cohen, Suzanne Vega and Tim Buckley
come to mind.
Holly Hyatt: For singers I would say Etta James, Billie
Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Karrin Allyson and Eva Cassidy. I love Susan
Tedeschi, Jewel, and Neil Young for songwriters. Bonnie Raitt is a huge
influence for me because she sings, plays guitar and writes. I have recently
started upright bass lessons and have really gotten into Ray Brown. For singing
female bass players I say Esperanza Spalding takes the cake!
Sari Schorr: As a writer, I’ve been most influenced by
the poetry of Emily Dickenson and the lyrics of Bob Dylan. As a singer, I was
influenced by the great classic female blues singers like Mamie Smith, Ma
Rainey, and Bessie Smith. I must also acknowledge blues-rock singer Martha
Velez who made some great records in the late 60’s and early 70’s. We have some
shared experiences. Martha also trained as an opera singer and she also worked
with Mike Vernon. It was a dream come true to meet her. We were playing a
festival in Florida and she came to see us. Martha is my mentor and role model.
She is an inspiration.
Teresa James: That's a big question- there are so many!
When I first decided to become a singer, I listen to every singer I ever heard
of from Koko Taylor to Billie Holiday to really obscure stuff just to see how
they sang and how they did that they did. I would have to say that Aretha
Franklin, Billie Holiday, Janis Joplin and even some of the old time country
singers were huge influences on my singing.
Gina Sicilia: Great singers and artists....Aretha Franklin,
Otis Rush, Sam Cooke, Stevie Wonder, The Soul Stirrers and all the great gospel
groups, Etta James, Bobby Bland, James Carr, Ray Charles, Dolly Parton, the
list goes on...
FBF: If you weren’t a musician, what do you think
you would be doing?
Kat Riggins: I’d be working towards BEING a musician!
Lex Grey: I may have pursued my career in the film
business as an art director. I still do
an occasional feature film when I have the time and I am the production
designer for all 3 of the band's new videos.
In a Bizarro world, I might have been a trauma surgeon.
Holly Hyatt: I am a Mother to a 2 and 5 year old, so I
am a full time Mama. As for an alternate career I would probably become a
vegetarian food blogger, because I love to cook and am passionate about healthy
Sari Schorr: I can’t imagine my life without being a
musician. It defines who I am. But, humanitarian work has always been my other
passion. The work I’ve done in Haiti and India has changed my life. I’d do much
more of that.
Teresa James: I have no idea. I knew that I wanted to
play music from the time I was five years old so I'm guessing it would have
something to do with music. I've always thought it would be fun to have a
little general store somewhere and have music on Friday and Saturday nights. I
don't know - I would have to think about that long and hard; if I couldn't play
music - I'm not sure what I would do.
Gina Sicilia: In college I majored in journalism and
interned at radio stations, newspapers and at NBC in Philadelphia. If I wasn't
singing I probably would have followed that path and worked in television or
FBF: When you’re not making music, what are you
usually doing? Do you have a hobby or
favorite activity, or a passion away from music?
Kat Riggins: I love eating, travelling…travelling to
eat! I love trying new things. I’m a bit of an adventurer when it comes to
stuff like that. I enjoy learning about different cultures. I love learning
about the languages, the customs, the art and the MUSIC. There’s a whole wide
world out there to explore!
Lex Grey: I am a Yoga instructor and
practitioner. I am an organic gardener
and I raise heirloom chickens for eggs. I love to go to yard sales and flea
markets in search of the ultimate weird thing, as depicted in our song
Holly Hyatt: I love to spend time in nature;
gardening, rock climbing, hiking, cross country skiing. I love to bake, spend
time with my husband, and play with my kids. I journal a lot, read books, do
yoga, and write poetry.
Sari Schorr: When I’m not making music, I love
spending time with my husband and our lovable pit bull triplets. I miss them
all terribly when I’m on the road. And, continuing with the humanitarian work
I’ve started is really important to me. I also love running. I’m hoping to do
my 3rd marathon next year.
Teresa James: I like to read a lot and love to go to
the movies (although that might be more about the popcorn...). Mostly when I'm
not making music or working on things that go along with that, i'm usually
doing laundry or cleaning my house which is a never ending battle.
Gina Sicilia: When I'm home in Nashville and not on the
road, I absolutely love cooking. It's a creative outlet for me. I love cooking
for people and creating new recipes. I truly enjoy that. I also love watching
movies, which are the ultimate escape and can be very inspiring. Anything that
takes me away from this often stressful career and lets me be inspired and
creative and feel gratified in ways that don't involve music.
FBF: Where do you go to “escape” from the rat
race? Do you have a special place where
you go to get away from it all, or a place where you would love to go?
Kat Riggins: It may sound cliché, but a hot bath with
all the fixins really does the trick! Hook me up with some candles, music and a
glass of wine and I’m good to go. When I’m feeling like escaping into nature I
go where there’s water… the beach, a lake, someplace pretty so that I can
reflect on my blessings and give thanks.
When I’m grateful I remind myself that I really have nothing to complain
about. The “rat race” becomes background noise.
Lex Grey: I am an avid hiker, motorcyclist and
kayaker. When I'm not on stage or
thundering through New York City dressed to kill, I am hiking through the
mountains of upstate New York with my dog.
Holly Hyatt: When I feel like I need to ground myself
I try and connect with nature. If I am on the road I go for walks in the
morning. If I am at home, my special place is the Slocan River. I also love
alpine meadows, but only get up in the high country a few times a year. I dream
of hiking Machu Picchu in Peru and rock climbing Mt. Gimli in the Valhalla
Sari Schorr: I love the countryside and the mountains.
It’s a big contrast to life in Brooklyn, NY. I really enjoy a quaint little bed
& breakfast where I can unwind and write some music. I find inspiration in
the tranquility there.
Teresa James: I don't really get much chance to escape
exactly, pretty much every vacation we ever take has a gig involved with it,
but we do get to go to some pretty great places, and I always try to take advantage
of being somewhere new. I have also been very fortunate the last few years that
I've been able to go on the Delbert McClinton Sandy Beaches cruise and I have
been able to bring my family along, and since I only do a few shows during the
week it is a very special chance to spend time relaxing and being with family.
Gina Sicilia: I love to go walking in the woods in this
beautiful park in Pennsylvania where my family lives. It's a great place to
meditate, clear my mind and escape from all the noise.
FBF: Which artists and what kinds of music do you
listen to when you’re not performing…..at home, on the go, etc…?
Kat Riggins: Great question! I’m all over the place!!!
Of course I get into my trusty blues favorites like John Primer, Buddy Guy,
Bonnie Raitt, Shemekia, and Beth Hart and so on. Then there are days when I’m
all about India Arie, Jill Scott, Erykah Badu, Janelle Monae and those. On
other days I need some Common, Rakim, Nas, Jay Z, etc. When I’m feelin’ my Gretchen Wilson, Toby
Keith and Charlie Daniels the day is gonna be interesting. The days to watch for are when I put it all
Lex Grey: Surprisingly, I listen to a lot of Indian
and far-eastern music when I practice yoga. I also love jazz, both experimental
and big band. I can listen to Louis Armstrong and Cannonball Adderley any time.
I even have a chicken named Cannonball! I love classic rock and old soul. I
even go through periods of chamber music exclusively. It drives the band crazy!
Strangely, the whole band can sing along to almost any show tune!
Holly Hyatt: A real mix: Susan Tedeschi, Bonnie Raitt,
Karrin Allyson, Billie Holiday, Norah Jones, Alicia Keys, Amy Winehouse, Adele
and the Neville Brothers. I have
recently been listening to T-Bone Walker, Anson Funderburgh, Charles Baty and a
lot of Aretha Franklin.
Sari Schorr: I listen to a lot of classic blues.
There’s so much music of historical value to explore. I love digging deeper and
deeper into blues history. It’s a never-ending treasure chest.
Teresa James: I like
to mix it up, but most of the stuff I listen to tends to be fairly vintage
stuff. My playlist runs from old time country like the Carter Family and
Western Swing to Jimmy Reed, Big Mama. I have been on a 5 Royales kick lately
and I love Cuban music... I like to listen to any music that moves me.
Gina Sicilia: I love listening to 50's/60's music on
satellite radio, as well as classic country tunes. As far as a contemporary
performer goes, I love Brandi Carlile.
FBF: What message would each of you like to give
to any people who would like to become a singer/songwriter/musician?
Kat Riggins: Be encouraged! Music is one of the
greatest gifts one can give and receive. If this is something you NEED to be
doing, don’t let all the hard work discourage you. Be encouraged by the fact
that your blessing will be a blessing to someone else! I can’t wait to hear
what you create!
Lex Grey: If you sing, write songs and/or play an
instrument, you already are a musician. The degree you choose to pursue it is
up to you. I can’t imagine not doing what I do; it's the driving force of my
existence. You can choose to ignore the business end of it, but you don’t have
to be in the music business to be a musician. Play, write, jam and always bring
your whole heart, soul, experience and truth to your music. People will listen!
Holly Hyatt: Enjoy performing as much as possible and
pass that joy on to your audience. Also write your own songs. Songwriting is a
skill that serves a musician well.
Sari Schorr: Seek your own voice. Find your
inspiration in the world around you. Take an interest in people and their
lives. That will become a great resource for your writing.
Teresa James: Be yourself! Don't let what is popular
influence what you do. It's important to listen to all kinds of music so you
can discover what resonates with you; allow yourself to explore the kind of
music that really makes you feel good and build on that.
Gina Sicilia: Work hard, work hard, work hard. Be
persistent. Don't be afraid to put yourself out there and take matters into
your own hands. Do whatever needs to be done to reach your goals. That might
include booking your own shows. Don't wait for anyone to come along and do
these things for you. Early on, no one will invest as much time in your career
as you will. If someone does come along who wants to handle things for you,
always maintain a certain amount of control over what's happening. Don't sit
back and relax. Don't rest on your laurels. Always strive to be
better. Keep moving, even through the disappointments. Never give up.