Laura Rain and the Caesars • Closer

LRC CLOSER

Laura Rain and the Caesars

Closer

LRC, 2014

Available from cdbaby.com and amazon.com

laurarain.net

 

Detroit’s Laura Rain and the Caesars seem to have internalized everything good about blues, R&B, funk, and soul, and in the process created something smart and soulful of their own: a retro modern vision of soul and blues music, immediately familiar yet completely fresh. This set expands on last year’s debut Electrified with more great songs, killer arrangements, a broader range of styles, and a deeper blues feeling that permeates every track.

The core group of Caesars remains the same: Ron Pangborn (drums and percussion), Phil Hale (keyboards, including left-hand “bass”), and George Friend (guitar, co-writer, recording and mixing engineer). For Closer, Rain and bandleader Friend had very definite notions about how the completed songs ought to sound, and to that end brought in ringers in some cases to achieve specific goals. The album credits list drummers Terry Thunder, Todd Glass, and Rick Beamon, with Sheila Hale on tambourine; Leon Powell and Jim Simonson (electric bass); Duncan McMillan (organ); and Johnny Evans (saxophones) and John Douglas (trumpet). This Detroit All-Star team has laid down a record that sounds full when it needs to and spare elsewhere. Uptown and lowdown, hungry, vivid, and confident, Closer is just plain badass.

In the album opener, “Seasons,” the Caesars build a funky brick house on a bone-crunching, AC/DC-worthy riff. Rain’s impassioned call-and-response vocal sanctifies the grounds. “Super Duper Love” (not the Sugar Billy song covered by Joss Stone) is a knowing, instant-classic 21st Century soul blues hit that grafts a gritty guitar break and an indelible vocal hook onto a syncopated, bass-and-organ figure that could have come straight from an early-‘80s side by Prince or Rick James. Another unforgettably catchy melody tops “Dirty Man,” an ultra-funky slice of modern-leaning, mid-tempo R&B. Slightly more classical in form, “Meet Me in the Middle” is an irresistible dance number, filled with swirling organ, hard-hitting horn blasts, and a slamming rhythm section. Rain’s phrasing and timbre are ideally matched to the song, and absolutely delicious. Her sass and enthusiasm are reminiscent of another great Detroit singer, a legend whose initials are A.F. An infectious, straight ahead blues, “Squawkin’” updates Little Milton’s immortal “That’s What Love Will Do” with an especially hip bass line, ferocious drumming, and the stinging guitar of Caesar-in-chief Friend. Rain’s on-the-money wails are heart-stoppingly effective.

The Caesars visit the deep South on several numbers. Soulful backing voices and an insistent rhythmic pulse give “He Is” a distinctly gospel-inflected, Muscle Shoals sound that would make Mavis Staples envious. Friend’s terse lead guitar neatly cuts through an atmosphere thick with electric piano and clavinet. “Awful Sin” comes straight from the swamp. A dark, brooding tonality puts the song in a class with Tony Joe White’s “Did Somebody Make A Fool Out Of You,” but Friend’s slinky guitar lines, wobbly with tremolo, and a greasy, ominous groove stamp it with that difficult-to-capture Staple Singers feeling. “All Of Me” could be a lost O.V. Wright or Ann Peebles record. Its bluesy groove, something like “Breaking Up Somebody’s Home,” sets a rock-solid rhythmic hook that frees Rain to do her thing; a sophisticated middle section moves the song to another, transcendent level. Finally, still in the Royal Studio mode, “Closer” has all the hallmarks of a creamy Willie Mitchell production for Al Green. From the drumming (and the drum sounds) up through the deep-grooving electric bass, horns, Hammond organ, and spare, precise guitar, the silky feel sets the mood for Rain’s simply beautiful melody line. Lovers of Memphis soul will recognize this affectionate tribute as a great song.

Rain excels at the slowest tempos, too. With swelling horns in the deep soul tradition, tough guitar, and a stirring vocal that moves with ease from subdued to flamboyant, “Your Love Is Not Broken” evokes the depth and searing intensity of James Brown’s devastating Live at the Apollo ballads. When she hears this song, Bettye LaVette will wish she had it first. The disc ends with “My Heart is Open,” a soul ballad with all the stunning sweep and scope of a Hollywood epic and none of the schmaltz. A Marvin Gaye vibe comes across in the song’s elegant chords as outlined by Phil Hale’s piano and strings, and in its sonics, an impossible combination of intimacy and spaciousness. Much of its success rests on Laura’s amazing performance: a masterpiece of dynamics, pure, unaffected, and deeply emotional.

I tried to describe the wondrous singing of Ms. Rain in my review of Electrified (see http://alturl.com/4t3vo) and will confine myself here to reiterating that very few vocalists are in her class when the discussion gets serious about technique, instrument, emotion, and absolute freedom of expression. Laura Rain is a real soul singer, period. She is recorded better this time out as well, with frankly incredible results. The arrangements are first-rate, and the songs extend the arc of blues and soul music in unexpected ways, while paying respect to their influences. Closer is a varied album of soul and blues that could have been made by Johnny “Guitar” Watson or Johnnie Taylor. Anyone serious about soul and blues music ought to hear this meticulously crafted, heartfelt record.

TOM HYSLOP

Jimmy Alter & Jason Bone • The Bottom Line

Jason Bone & Jimmy Alter

The Bottom Line EP

2014

http://www.jimmyaltermusic.com

 

Jimmy Alter’s soon-to-be-released five song record follows an earlier EP, Rock With Me. The young guitarist from St. Clair Shores, Michigan, and his band mate, guitarist Jason Bone, sing blues-based music with heart and skill. The pair has selected this short set wisely, for although all of the songs are covers, none is unknown (or, with one exception, even obscure), yet none has been frequently re-recorded, thereby introducing an element of surprise while maintaining some familiarity. That’s the way to do it!

The program opens with a bass line and hammering piano, both straight out of Little Richard, kicking off a raucous number that proves to be “Player,” an exciting throwback classic by Nick Curran. The band dispatches that tune in 2:20, just enough time to squeeze in a couple choruses of rock ‘n’ roll guitar inspired by Berry and Richards. Next up is the obscurity–I had to Google the lyrics to positively identify “The Bottom Line,” a noir-ish, mid-tempo song from the late harmonica man Paul de Lay. Bone really gets across the character of the narrator, a lonely outsider. A tersely phrased guitar break yields to Jim David’s subtly dazzling organ solo. Both players understand that what isn’t played is as important as what is.

Alex Lyon (bass) and David Watson (drums) cut a strong groove behind the tough take on “Funky Mama” that centers the set. Those unfamiliar with the original version would be forgiven for scanning their Jimmie Vaughan records trying to identify this instrumental shuffle. Bone holds down the rhythm, playing greasy lines through a Leslie cabinet in tribute to Big John Patton’s organ. First David solos on piano; next Alter, Bone, and Motor City Josh take turns on guitar. None really references Grant Green’s playing on Lou Donaldson’s classic version; instead we hear three snappy solos, each with a lot of personality, ranging from loopy, carnival-esque ideas through snarling, Albert Collins-inflected lines, and ending with a few unison run-throughs of the head arrangement, all in just over three minutes.

Hats off to Alter for reaching into the “5” Royales’ catalog for “Thirty Second Lover.” He hews close to the original for the guitar introduction and fills, but this version is far from a clone: the tempo seems slower and the track here has a distinctly boozy, New Orleans party feeling. Jimmy and the backing vocalists acquit themselves enthusiastically and well, and the guitar break is crisp and impressive. For the final cut, Bone turns to the great American band Los Lobos for their beautiful, haunting “The Neighborhood.” Everything comes together here, from the rhythm section through the electric piano touches and organ solo (take note of David’s crafty Tito Puente/Santana quotation) to Jason Bone’s vocal, in which he sounds amazingly like David Hidalgo, to a guitar solo that is at once flashy and deeply soulful.

A song like this has far more in common with the blues than do any 500 blues rock clichés. Bone and Jimmy Alter ought to be commended for recognizing that kinship, and for being willing to stretch the boundaries in appropriate and fresh directions, while remaining emphatically loyal to blues tradition. They deserve credit too for their nerve. It would be nigh impossible to top Lowman Pauling’s wit and soul, or Curran’s shattering energy, but on this enjoyable EP Alter and Bone hold their own, with mature singing and playing that promise a huge upside.

 

TOM HYSLOP

 

The artist provided an advance copy of the EP. This review was commissioned by the Detroit Blues Society and published in the July 2014 edition of its BluesNotes newsletter. Download a PDF at the DBS Web site, detroitbluessociety.org

 

 

Al Blake • Blues According To Blake: …a road less traveled

Blues-According-To-Blake-A-Road-Less-Traveled-cover

Al Blake

Blues According To Blake: …a road less traveled

Soul Sanctuary, 2013/2014

 

Al Blake is a figure of particular importance in both the preservation of a strong traditional element and the continuing development of what has come to be called West Coast blues. Anyone who has listened to blues music with anything more than a casual dedication over the past 40+ years is familiar with Blake’s work, if not his name. The California-based artist achieved some fame and an undying legacy of excellence during the ‘70s and ‘80s as the voice, harmonica player, and primary songwriter of the Hollywood Fats Band. More recent years have found him releasing superb albums both as a solo artist and at the helm of the Hollywood Blue Flames, in collaboration with the surviving members of the Fats Band, whose namesake, guitarist Michael “Hollywood Fats” Mann, died in 1986. His latest recording is clearly a labor of love. Blues According To Blake: …a road less traveled is a spare and beautiful expression of blues from close to the heart.

Blake delivers pre- and post-war styles with a master’s hand on this all-acoustic affair. He performs four songs alone, on harmonica or guitar. On the chugging midtempo harp instrumental “Old Time Boogie,” Blake delivers a perfect mix of chords and single note lines, accompanied only by his tapping foot. He takes “Easy” perhaps a little faster than the classic Sun single by Walter Horton and Jimmy DeBerry, and without guitar. While Walter’s hornlike tone remains inimitable, Blake recreates his fluttering vibrato and breathing-through-the-harp effects to a T. Bravo! The guitar tracks include a dark-toned adaptation of “Big Fat Mama” to which Blake adds a pulsating, single bass note beneath intricate runs like those in Tommy Johnson’s original, and the splendid new line “[she] don’t need no diet plan.” He also covers Slim Harpo’s “King Bee” in a swaggering, country blues rendition. It was an inspired moment that produced this interpretation, which filters the swamp blues classic through the sensibility of Lightnin’ Hopkins at his most doomy. Blake’s National steel-bodied resonator (I think) sounds like nothing so much as a trashcan with strings–and it is lovely.

The balance of the program features the contributions of several other musicians. Richard Innes’s drumming subtly drives “Hummingbird,” a shuffle as hard-hitting and crisply defined as Eddie Taylor’s “Bad Boy,” though instead of coming through a dirty-toned amplifier, it is played by Blake on that National resonator. “All the flowers are crazy about me,” indeed! The great blues and jazz pianist Fred Kaplan, another Fats Band alumnus, duets with Blake’s guitar on “Papa’s Boogie,” a sprightly shuffle with stop-time choruses in which lascivious currents bubble under Blake’s good-natured vocal. In “Music Man,” a low-key, Delta-style blues about an itinerant musician and ladies’ man, he again rolls the 88s behind Blake’s percussive, snapped guitar. Blake seems really to be feeling this hypnotic, dreamy vocal performance. Blake and Kaplan, with Innes again and the addition of bassist Larry Taylor, make a complete Fats Band reunion on a quietly sexy “Rock Me.”

Blake reserves his deepest expressiveness and bluest emotions for a pair of songs on which he is joined by guitarist Nathan James. “Precious Time” is a philosophical meditation on death and temporality with a focus both general (“Time waits for no one, not millionaires, not kings”) and specific (“Goodbye, old friend, you know time brings about a change”). Tremolo-picked, mandolin-like flourishes add a distinctive touch to rhythmic echoes of Tommy Johnson in James’s accompaniment. In “City Of Angels,” Blake weaves his plaintive harmonica through a delicate figure played on the treble strings of James’s guitar as indelible images of waves and wind draw tight his rueful lyric of sin and heartbreak in Los Angeles. This is artistry at a high level.

Although it holds true to the conventions of the genre, a road less traveled in no way sounds like the work of an archivist. Rather, in its lack of affectation and unflinching honesty, this record sounds as if, just like John Lee Hooker’s boogie-woogie, it was in Al Blake and had to come out. Its lack of pretension or artifice makes Blues According To Blake the perfect restorative for listeners offended by the phoniness and wearied by the bombast common to practically every style of music today (with much of what is marketed as “blues” sadly no exception). Depending on your listening habits, this record may at first sound a bit subtle to you. If it does, play it again and listen closely. Mr. Blake’s blues will move you.

TOM HYSLOP

 

The artist kindly provided this CD for review. It is available for purchase at http://www.bluebeatmusic.com

2015 Blues Music Awards Submission Process Opens

major2_hvr_02

The Blues Music Association has announced:

The Blues Music Awards honor those professional artists and recordings that stand out within the eligibility period, which runs from November 1 through October 31 of each year. In addition to the awards for the past year’s top recordings, additional categories honor individual, actively touring artists for their overall excellence and accomplishment in that year.

There are three components to the submission process. You should do step one when the CD is released. You should do step 2 as early as possible. It is up to you to decide whether to participate in the third option, but if you do, send it in as early as you can.

Complete details here:

http://www.blues.org/foundation-programs/blues-music-awards/the-blues-music-awards-nomination-procedure/

A.C. Myles • Reconsider Me

Myles

A.C. Myles

Reconsider Me

2014

http://acmyles.com/

 

Concentrating on his solo career after some very respectable positions as sideman, including work with Fillmore Slim and a stint with John Németh, the talented Northern California-based singer and guitarist A.C. Myles is set to release his second solo album (after a live record, now out of print) very soon. I was privileged to hear an advance copy of Reconsider Me!

Produced by Kid Andersen at his Greaseland studio, Reconsider Me! spotlights Myles’s tough guitar playing and devastating singing. Its playlist is designed to touch on some of Myles’s influences and professional associates. Nearly half of the set consists of rockers. “Livin’ A Lie” owes much to Johnny Winter’s flamboyant 1970s recordings. Interesting sections and tempo shifts give the song a complex, hard edge that is softened, slightly, by an anthemic, radio-ready chorus. On the pumping boogie “Three Ways To Fall,” Myles evokes the sound of Winter’s Alligator period, positively nailing his slide guitar style and vocal mannerisms. The swaggering rocker “Call ‘em All Baby” is marked by hammering piano and sweet backing vocals over the chorus, with harmonized lead guitars emphasizing its unmistakable inspiration in Southern rock. Myles turns in a fierce and funky version of Rory Gallagher’s “Do You Read Me,” and transforms “Rock My Soul” into something a bit less country-fried than Elvin Bishop’s original, tipping a hat to the revival-tent enthusiasm of Delaney & Bonnie and Friends and including some very Clapton-esque guitar playing. Myles’s powerful voice is well suited to these rocking numbers, and–to judge by his enthusiastic screams–he has a blast singing them.

Blues are amply represented on Reconsider Me! Myles adapts Fillmore Slim’s superbad version of “Blue Monday” in an arrangement built on percolating drums and bass, organ and funky keyboards, and wah-wah guitar. His vocal is lovely and soulful, the guitar solo and chicken-picked fills perfectly conceived. Myles’s guitar absolutely stings on the gritty “Queen Bee,” with rubbery bends, wild double-stops, and killer instinct straight out of ‘60s-era Buddy Guy. “Death Bed Blues,” a slowish, midtempo straight blues with a relaxed shuffle feel, lands in the West Coast neighborhood of Lowell Fulson, groove-wise, with elegant guitar lines that could have come from Fenton Robinson, whose “You Don’t Know What Love Is” appears here, fleshed out with percussion and electric piano, with sublime guitar and a beautiful vocal. The entire album, in fact, is wonderfully sung, but the title track merits special attention. The country soul classic by Johnny Adams gets a simple, effective arrangement of rhythm section, organ, Floyd Cramer-style piano, and guitar, and while the Tan Canary is often cited as one of the best pure singers to work in blues and R&B, Myles’s performance yields nothing. Subtle shifts in timbre give his voice a country feeling; his phrasing is devastatingly expressive; and his glides into falsetto during the choruses are breathtaking. “Reconsider Me” is a show-stopper.

One number splits the difference between the rockers and the blues songs. “What Is Love” was originally done by The Loved Ones, a great and underappreciated Oakland-based band whose two albums on Hightone achieved a potent distillation of the rock-and-soul of the early Rolling Stones, the mid-‘60s R&B-on-the-cusp-of-funk of James Brown, blues attitude à la Junior Wells, and a faultless pop sensibility. Obviously Myles remembers them fondly, too, for he recreates their highly original sound flawlessly. Three cheers!

While it is likely that the purists won’t admit to liking everything here, they will surely find the blues-based material deeply enjoyable. It is also likely that those who perhaps came for the rock-inflected songs will stay to hear the soul and blues, and that non-purists will love all of Reconsider Me! That makes A.C. Myles’s new album just the sort of gateway drug I thoroughly endorse. Reconsider Me! promises to provide some of the most memorable moments of 2014.

 

TOM HYSLOP

 

The artist kindly provided the review copy of this CD.

2014 Blues Music Awards Winners

major2_hvr_02Congratulations to the winners, announced in Memphis on 2014-05-08. As usual, I am out of step with the voters, with my favorite candidates often drastically at variance with the popular choices (where the winners in a few cases were my absolute last choices). I am laughing to keep from crying as I reveal my batting average: .087. I voted for precisely two winners in the 23 categories decided by public ballot. I would be interested in hearing your thoughts, if any. Are you satisfied or outraged by the results?

In the unlikely event this blog is your sole source of news regarding the BMAs, I present again the complete list of 35th Blues Music Award nominees, now with winners in bold type:

Acoustic Album
There’s a Time – Doug MacLeod
Juba Dance – Guy Davis featuring Fabrizio Poggi
Soulscape – Harrison Kennedy
Avalon – Rory Block
Unleashed – The Hound Kings

Acoustic Artist
Doug MacLeod
Guy Davis
Harrison Kennedy
Little G Weevil
Rory Block

Album
Get Up! – Ben Harper with Charlie Musselwhite
Remembering Little Walter – Billy Boy Arnold, Charlie Musselwhite, Mark Hummel, Sugar Ray Norcia & James Harman
Rhythm & Blues – Buddy Guy
Cotton Mouth Man – James Cotton
Blues in My Soul – Lurrie Bell

B.B. King Entertainer
Bobby Rush
Buddy Guy
John Németh
Kim Wilson
Rick Estrin

Band
Lil Ed & the Blues Imperials
Rick Estrin & the Night Cats
Tedeschi Trucks Band
The Mannish Boys
Trampled Under Foot

Best New Artist Debut
Double Crossing Blues – Adrianna Marie and Her Groovecutters
Rooster – Clay Swafford
Proof of Love – Gracie Curran & the High Falutin’ Band
What’s the Chance… – Paul Gabriel
Daddy Told Me – Shawn Holt & the Teardrops
Pushin’ Against a Stone – Valerie June

Contemporary Blues Album
Get Up! – Ben Harper with Charlie Musselwhite
This Time Another Year – Brandon Santini
Rhythm & Blues – Buddy Guy
Magic Honey – Cyril Neville
Badlands – Trampled Under Foot

Contemporary Blues Female Artist
Ana Popovic
Beth Hart
Bettye LaVette
Candye Kane
Susan Tedeschi

Contemporary Blues Male Artist
Buddy Guy
Gary Clark Jr.
Johnny Sansone
Kim Wilson
Otis Taylor

DVD
High John Records – Time Brings About a Change (Floyd Dixon)
J&R Adventures – An Acoustic Evening at the Vienna Opera House (Joe Bonamassa)
Shake-It-Sugar Records – Live (Murali Coryell)
Ruf Records – Songs from the Road (Royal Southern Brotherhood)
Blue Star Connection – Live at Knuckleheads (The Healers)

Historical
The Sun Blues Box (Various Artists) – Bear Family
The Original Honeydripper (Roosevelt Sykes) – Blind Pig Records
The Jewel/Paula Blues Story (Various Artists) – Fuel Records
Death Might Be Your Santa Claus (Various Artists) – Legacy Recordings
The Complete King/Federal Singles (Freddie King) – Real Gone Music

Instrumentalist-Bass
Bill Stuve
Bob Stroger
Danielle Schnebelen
Larry Taylor
Patrick Rynn

Instrumentalist-Drums
Cedric Burnside
Jimi Bott
Kenny Smith
Tom Hambridge
Tony Braunagel

Instrumentalist-Guitar
Anson Funderburgh
Gary Clark Jr.
Kid Andersen
Lurrie Bell
Ronnie Earl

Instrumentalist-Harmonica
Brandon Santini
Charlie Musselwhite
James Cotton
Kim Wilson
Rick Estrin

Instrumentalist-Horn
Big James Montgomery
Eddie Shaw
Jimmy Carpenter
Sax Gordon
Terry Hanck

Koko Taylor Award (Traditional Blues Female)
Diunna Greenleaf
Lavelle White
Teeny Tucker
Trudy Lynn
Zora Young

Rock Blues Album
Gone to Texas – Mike Zito & the Wheel
Made Up Mind – Tedeschi Trucks Band
Can’t Get Enough – The Rides
John the Conquer Root – Toronzo Cannon
Luther’s Blues – Walter Trout

Pinetop Perkins Piano Player
Barrelhouse Chuck
Dave Keyes
Marcia Ball
Mike Finnigan
Victor Wainwright

Song
“Blues in My Soul” – Lurrie Bell
“He Was There” – James Cotton, Tom Hambridge & Richard Fleming
“That’s When the Blues Begins” – James Goode
“The Entitled Few” – Doug MacLeod
“The Night the Pie Factory Burned Down” – Johnny Sansone

Soul Blues Album
Down In Louisiana – Bobby Rush
Soul Changes – Dave Keller
Soul for Your Blues – Frank Bey & Anthony Paule Band
Remembering O. V. – Johnny Rawls
Truth Is (Putting Love Back Into the Music) – Otis Clay

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

Soul Blues Male Artist
Bobby Rush
Frank Bey
John Németh
Johnny Rawls
Otis Clay

Traditional Blues Album
Driftin’ from Town to Town – Barrelhouse Chuck & Kim Wilson’s Blues All-Stars
Remembering Little Walter – Billy Boy Arnold, Charlie Musselwhite, Mark Hummel, Sugar Ray Norcia, James Harman
Cotton Mouth Man – James Cotton
Blues in My Soul – Lurrie Bell
Black Toppin’ – The Cash Box Kings

Traditional Blues Male Artist
Anson Funderburgh
Billy Boy Arnold
James Cotton
John Primer
Lurrie Bell

Guy King: Solo and Organ Trio Recordings

By Myself I Am Who I Am And It Is What It Is

GUY KING

By Myself

I Am Who I Am And It Is What It Is

IBF Records, 2012

guyking.net

Guy King established his credentials in the six years he spent as bandleader for Chicago legend Willie Kent, during which his tough but nuanced lead guitar playing was a major part of The Gents’ hard-edged blues sound. Following Kent’s death in 2006, King embarked upon a solo career. His debut album Livin’ It, on which a new, tightly arranged style, inflected with smooth, jazz-shaded R&B, began to emerge, was nominated for a Blues Music Award; and the guitarist, a native of Israel, seemed to be everywhere at once, appearing nationally and internationally with his blues band, playing solo shows, and fronting an organ trio around Chicago. Then he seemingly fell off the map. As it turns out, King has been spending most of his time abroad, mainly performing in Israel and Brazil. Given that he is preparing to return to the United States for a series of dates scheduled around the 2014 Chicago Blues Festival, now seems a good time to take stock of the two excellent albums King quietly released at the end of summer 2012.

Willie Kent’s gritty electric blues were one thing; the uptown Livin’ It was quite another. What King does on By Myself is completely unexpected. Powerful interpretations of songs by pre-war blues icon Robert Johnson make up nearly half of the 15-song set. King shows a surprising affinity for the form, with a mastery of Johnson’s technique and chords, a snappy, percussive attack that brings a full and expressive sound to the solo guitar, and vocals that shift from full to falsetto, always sounding natural and often impassioned, as when his voice breaks in “Hellhound On My Trail,” where King evokes hopeless resignation in the face of haunting mystery. At the other end of the emotional register is the relatively plainspoken “Steady Rollin’ Man,” also among the strongest performances here. King’s singing takes on a notable resonance and vibrato, appropriately enough, on “Can’t Be Satisfied,” one of two Muddy Waters numbers, and thumps fleet runs on the bass strings of his guitar behind Lightnin’ Hopkins’s “Katie Mae,” which closes this portion of the program.

Don’t despair if Mississippi and Texas blues are not your thing. Five songs at the end of the CD come from an entirely different direction. Still solo, still built on King’s acoustic guitar and evocative singing, they touch on more contemporary and more cosmopolitan musical styles. “I Am Who I Am And It Is What It Is” is a swinging, soulful, upbeat number with a jazzy flair. Next King reprises the sophisticated ballad “Alone In The City,” from Livin’ It. Stripped of its electric instruments and horns, it sounds more like Percy Mayfield or even Charles Brown at his gloomiest–with Ray Charles somewhere at the root of both versions. King overdubs subtle percussion on the last few songs, all in the bossa nova style, beginning with his reading of the jazz standard “Nature Boy,” continuing through his lively cover of Joao Gilberto’s “Acapulco,” and ending with a smoky “Besame Mucho.” This is music for lovers, indeed.

Recorded with Mike Schlick (drums) and Ben Paterson (organ), the two-CD set I Am Who I Am And It Is What It Is offers a cool cruise through jazz and standards, blues and ballads, soul and R&B, and pop. The program begins with a band version of the title track before moving to Charlie Parker’s “Yardbird Suite.” King then shifts from bop to the birth of soul, with an emotional “Drown In My Own Tears.” Next up is a light “Sweet Lorraine,” a rousing “Mojo,” then back to jazz with Stanley Turrentine’s bluesy “Sugar,” and on to Percy Mayfield’s “Please Send Me Someone To Love” and a “Going To Chicago” much toned down from any of the often-heard Joe Williams versions. King’s interest in Brazil comes out in Jobim’s uptempo “Agua De Beber.” Bobby Hebb’s pop smash “Sunny” yields to another Ray Charles ballad before King delivers a wondrous “Tear It Down,” capturing not only Wes Montgomery’s signature octaves but his excitement and effortless swing. Paterson is on fire here, too, and Schlick ably covers the drum breaks.

The second disc unfolds along the same lines, covering standards romantic (“You’ve Changed,” “Moonlight In Vermont”) and frivolous (“The Frim Fram Sauce”); jazz (“Green Dolphin Street” and workouts on McGriff’s “Vicky” and Burrell’s “Kenny’s Sound”); lush ballads from Billie Holiday (“God Bless The Child”) and Stevie Wonder (“Lately”); the breezy Brazilian “Brigas Nunca Mais”; blues (a pitiful “All Over Again,” from B.B. King’s catalog) and R&B (from Ray Charles once more, in a splendid “Roll With My Baby”). As is often the case with organ trios, some of the best material comes from unlikely places. King nods to the soul jazz tradition with sweet pop and elegant soul selections (“Isn’t She Lovely” and “Me And Mrs. Jones”), and surprises with the country weeper “Crying Time,” perhaps learned from Buck Owens, or remembered from bluesman Phillip Walker’s Playboy Records LP. In either case, it is devastating. Overall, the division between instrumentals and vocal numbers is about even, the latter showing King’s pleasant, expressive range, and on virtually every track, King and Paterson trade solos that, even when speaking the language of jazz, retain bluesy phrasing and tonalities. The group has a real feeling for the entire range of styles on What It Is, an absolutely lovely album on many levels.

King’s achievement is all the more impressive when one considers that both albums were recorded virtually off-the-cuff. Inspired after an evening’s gig, King cut the solo album in a single session, using an acoustic guitar belonging to the studio. In much the same way, the 30 songs on the organ trio record were laid down, in much less than 24 hours, during the course of an all-nighter, with a brief follow-up later in the afternoon. One might reasonably wonder if there is anything he can’t do, and where he will take us next. King has in fact been writing and recording new material, with an ear sensibly tilted toward producing great music, without much concern for genre restrictions. The touchstone artists whose work inspired the two works considered here–Muddy Waters, Antonio Carlos Jobim, Stevie Wonder, Nat “King” Cole, and Ray Charles in particular–seem likely to play a continuing role in King’s musical development. That is an evolution I don’t want to miss. In taking the varied music he loves and recasting it in new combinations, Guy King is going about his art the right way. Musicians with genuinely big ears are rare, and talent like King’s is rarer still.

TOM HYSLOP

I bought these CDs from the artist’s Web site.

Kenny Parker • Yes Indeed!

Yes Indeed!

Kenny Parker

Yes Indeed!

Blue Angel Recordings, 2013

https://myspace.com/kennyparkerblues

Download Yes Indeed! at iTunes, CDBaby, and Amazon. To buy CDs, contact the artist via Facebook or email (kennykool25 AT hotmail.com), or go to one of his shows.

 

It is hard to believe that almost 20 years have gone by since the release of Raise The Dead. Kenny Parker’s first album featured performances by some of the finest musicians in Detroit and beyond–players like The Butler Twins, Bill Heid, and Darrell Nulisch­–unified by his fiery yet tasteful guitar work, and stands up today as an solid sampling of straight-ahead blues. While the contemporary scene in Detroit (and elsewhere) is vastly different, Parker continues to keep high standards and good company. His new project Yes Indeed!, which features the vocals and harp of Garfield Angove, with Chris Codish and Tim Brockett on keys, Renell Gonzalves on drums, and Bob Connor and Mike Marshall (a returning collaborator) on bass, delivers a range of exciting music.

Parker’s varied originals make up the bulk of the record. Wailing harmonica and a humorous, spoken narrative about a high maintenance woman, delivered through a harp mike by The Reverend Lowdown, are essential components of “Wig Hat,” a lowdown stomp akin to an early Howlin’ Wolf number, with a guitar break as spiky as barbed wire. “I’m Gonna Make You Mine,” a shuffle with 1950s Memphis written all over it, features vivid lyrics and a raw, enthusiastic performance. A Texas feeling, reminiscent of Frankie Lee Sims by way of Mike Morgan & The Crawl, informs a pair of shuffles in the middle of the set: The tough swagger of “Shake That Thing” would have suited Parker’s old employers The Butler Twins well, while on “Spellbound” (co-written with Woodstock Sally Scribner), Parker breaks out his slide. Most slide guitarists playing blues (not rock) draw heavily on Muddy Waters or Elmore James; Parker’s curling, languid lines are original, with a hint of Smokin’ Joe Kubek’s style.

“Look Before You Leap,” a Parker-Angove collaboration, has a melody akin to Kim Wilson’s “Don’t Bite The Hand That Feeds You.” The song bears the merest suggestion of a rocking J.B. Lenoir shuffle and jumps as hard as Little Walter, but rather than aping Lockwood/Tucker or Louis Myers, Parker’s slashing attack is all Guitar Slim. It’s an unexpected and effective juxtaposition. Gonzalves’s invention and swing behind “Leap” are likewise impressive. “Tight Black Sweater” is about as modern as this set gets. Its hard-hitting “Tramp” groove features a slick Leslie sound on the guitar, a fine organ solo, and a spoken vocal right out of the textbooks written by Lowell Fulson and Otis & Carla. Angove’s harp accents lend a down home, “Scratch My Back” edge.

The playlist includes four covers. On Greg Piccolo’s title track, which opens the disc, the band lays down a clipped, upbeat shuffle, warmed by a sunny vocal and the horn section of Larry Lamb (sax) and Andy Wickstrom (trumpet). Paced by Parker’s uncluttered, melodic solo, “Yes Indeed” swings like a Ronnie Earl-era Roomful Of Blues tune should. Angove provides impressive, swooping harp lines and big tone on a muted, somber reading of Little Walter’s “Can’t Hold Out.” Parker turns in a fierce and faithful version of Gatemouth Brown’s classic “Okie Dokie Stomp” and salutes Ike Turner with a cover of the exotic “Cuban Getaway” that is sweet and snarling; the piano break nods, appropriately, to Professor Longhair’s rolling, complex, Carribean-inflected style. A serene take on the familiar show tune “You’ll Never Walk Alone” closes the disc on a quiet note, with a piano picking out the chords note by note the only backing for Parker’s gently soaring slide guitar.

If I were pressed to recommend a single track, it would be “Valentine’s Day,” a spare, funereally paced minor blues that shows how powerful restraint can be in the right hands. Parker’s playing is quiet and purposeful, and absolutely without the ulterior motive of turning it up to 10 and stepping on the gas halfway through the song. His outstanding performance is built on clean lines, rolling trills, ‘60s-era Buddy Guy double-stops, Otis Rush-leaning bends, and, above all, dynamics. Bravo! The devastating lyrics match the tone of the music, Angove’s subdued vocal delivery packs a heavy wallop, and for a sublime 5:49, everything hangs on beautiful and ominous piano accompaniment worthy of Otis Spann. Such combinations make Yes Indeed! a classy and memorable collection of pure blues.

 

TOM HYSLOP

 

The artist kindly provided the CD for this review.

Chris James & Patrick Rynn • Barrelhouse Stomp

Barrelhouse Stomp

CHRIS JAMES & PATRICK RYNN

Barrelhouse Stomp

Earwig Music Company, 2013

http://www.thebluefour.com

www.earwigmusic.com

Real blues music continues to persevere alongside supposedly “evolved” forms with which it has little in common beyond (sometimes) a common 12 bar structure. Two of its staunchest champions are Chris James and Patrick Rynn. The duo’s new album, Barrelhouse Stomp, drawn from 2009 and 2011 sessions in the company of such all-star contributors as Willie Smith and Willie Hayes (drums), Eddie Shaw (tenor saxophone), Jody Williams (guitar), and David Maxwell, Henry Gray, and Aaron Moore (piano), is a marvel of fresh traditionalism.

James & Rynn, with Rob Stone, write much of their material. “Goodbye, Later For You” shares a tempo and melody line, and an assertive vocal delivery, with such Muddy Waters recordings as “I Live The Life I Love,” and swaggers even more aggressively. “Just Another Kick In The Teeth,” a funky grind punctuated by blasts from a sax trio (Norbert W. Johnson, Johnny Viau, and Shaw), steps into the ‘60s. The solo spots put Shaw, Williams, and bassist Rynn front and center. The instrumental “Messin’ With White Lightnin’,” with its wild, scratchy rhythm guitar and busy bass line, is a perfect Bo Diddley pastiche. David Maxwell takes a terrific piano solo, his heavy attack giving the notes a weighty emphasis, but the star is Williams, whose bloodcurdling lead guitar was the MVP, of course, of Diddley’s “Who Do You Love.” His lines here are a canny mixture of biting single notes and stormy flurries, tangled bends and slippery double-stops. James’s own guitar solo takes the song out, extending Williams’s themes with furious abandon.

Where “Before It’s Too Late” unfolds easily, paced by Moore’s piano, “A Fact Is A Fact” blasts off like a newly-uncovered Broomdusters tune, rocking with fevered, Elmore James-inspired slide work and replete with hard-riffing horns. “It Can Always Be Worse” is a driving shuffle built on a version of Magic Sam’s West Side groove and melody line, with James’s first recorded harmonica work–really solid unamplified playing–leading the charge. Despite the loose, bleary feel of the rumba-style “Last Call Woogie,” the band executes stops as crisp as a gin and tonic. James and the great Louisiana piano man Henry Gray, best known for his work with Howlin’ Wolf, are the featured soloists.

Peppered throughout the album is a handful of fine covers. Big Bill’s “I Feel So Good” arrives early in the set, with the balance clustered near the album’s end.  James and Rynn turn Robert Nighthawk’s rollicking “Take It Easy” into a tribute to Pinetop Perkins, with David Maxwell hammering home chorus upon chorus of flying 88s. The group strikes a beautiful lope as James improvises lengthy variations on Elmore’s instrumental “Bobby’s Rock.” Always a confident vocalist refreshingly free of mannerisms, James convincingly hollers Little Brother Montgomery’s “Vicksburg Blues” (a song that lets Williams reprise the guitar part he played on its close relative, Wolf’s “Forty Four”), and outdoes himself in the infectious take on Junior Parker’s “I’m Gonna Stop Foolin’ Myself,” where Williams’s playing is even tougher than on “Lightnin’.” Viau’s honking tenor solo and a powerful groove maintain the tune’s uptown feel.

Listeners familiar with James and Rynn’s history will know not only the tandem’s two previous, highly acclaimed albums of ‘50s-inspired blues, but their recordings with harp man Stone’s C-Notes, their appearances on a number of releases produced by Phoenix harmonica ace and blues impresario Bob Corritore, and projects with Sam Lay, Dennis Binder, and Jody Williams, all demonstrating a deep respect for blues as the music ought to be played. Barrelhouse Stomp, a superb addition to their body of work, proves that traditional blues remains vital, appealing, and exciting.

TOM HYSLOP

I received the review copy of this CD from a publicist, Blind Raccoon.

Tinsley Ellis • Midnight Blue

Tinsley Ellis Midnight Blue Front Cover Square

TINSLEY ELLIS

Midnight Blue

Heartfixer Music, 2014

http://tinsleyellis.com/

In 2013, Tinsley Ellis released Get It, an all-instrumental album, somewhat unexpectedly composed of straightforward blues and rootsy rock songs. Now he returns with something more in line with what we have come to expect from him over 15 or so records and about 30 years in the trenches. Midnight Blue makes an emphatic statement confirming Ellis’s position not only as one of our great guitarists, but as a superior writer and singer of straight-ahead postwar electric blues and rock. Perhaps at the sacrifice of some accuracy, I’m going to cover what Ellis and company are up to under the umbrellas of three broadly defined styles.

Long acclaimed as one of the most intense and creative artists in blues rock, Ellis is assured enough to open Midnight Blue with a relatively slow number, “If The River Keeps Rising,” which starts with just his rhythmic but delicate acoustic guitar and plaintive vocal. When the band comes in after the first verse, the sound explodes into a bluesy slam, à la Zeppelin’s treatment of “When The Levee Breaks,” replete with Lynn Williams’s Bonham-worthy drumming and several thickly overdriven electric guitars woven into the mix. Between its melodic sense and guitar work that, in its phrasing and high gain tonality, recall strongly Eric Clapton’s late-‘80s Journeyman period, “Harder To Find” is an affecting and atmospheric midtempo rock ballad, with an absolutely lovely middle section and chorus. Touches like a slow-wash sound that might come from a Leslie cabinet are emblematic of the attention to sonic detail on this record.  “The Only Thing” is a solid blues shuffle with stops, very much in the vein of “I Ain’t Superstitious,” that splits the difference between Howlin’ Wolf and the Jeff Beck Group. Ellis’s toppy lead guitar sound pushes it perhaps in the direction of the latter, while “Mouth Turn Dry,” a Wolf-like stomp, sports wiry guitar breaks that recall both Hubert Sumlin (naturally) and Otis Rush. Its powerful lyric touches on romantic doubt, self-centered fear, and the dangers of drink. “That’s My Story” is a heavy rocker on the slower side, set to the pulse of a steady eighth-note bass pedal, with a superb guitar ride-out that focuses more on rhythm and feel than flash. While its edgy groove doesn’t really sound like anything I would expect from Tinsley–something like AC/DC, but with a swampy CCR vibe–it is excellent.

At times, Ellis has dabbled in R&B and even soul. He returns to those styles here with “It’s Not Funny,” which features a second line beat, direct from New Orleans. The mid-song breakdown is just part of hip overall rhythm arrangement, rounded out by Ellis’s tough, Lowell George-inflected slide guitar and the song’s “Iko Iko” family feel. Its title reflects perhaps the most obvious and clever turn of phrase that should have been written into a song years ago, but wasn’t. Great call, Mr. Ellis–that is how to do it! “Surrender” is a pulsing, slow- to midtempo track with a decidedly soulful edge; call it Boz Scaggs meeting Dire Straits at their dreamiest, or something The Wallflowers might once have cut. Perfect R&B-based fills and a melodic lead guitar that escalates in intensity accompany Ellis’s quiet, honest, vocal–a performance that fits the song beautifully. The ascending chord pattern behind the likewise beautifully sung “Peace And Love” comes from somewhere in the ‘60s soul universe. Its funky, Muscle Shoals feel, accentuated by Kevin McKendree’s organ and electric piano, is cast into interesting contrast by Ted Pecchio’s very Beatles-esque bass line.

About this time last year, Ellis described himself to me, I thought apologetically, as “the rock guy” in the Blues At The Crossroads 2 package, a tour that featured The Fabulous Thunderbirds in support of guests James Cotton, Jody Williams, Bob Margolin, and Ellis. The conversation took place just moments after he had delivered a set of stellar pure blues, beautiful and savage by turn. Here, he does it on “Kiss Of Death,” a spare slow blues taken at a funereal pace, much in the mode of “Double Trouble”–I mean the timeless Otis Rush song, not SRV, folks–and does it just right. The stark, late-night ballad “See No Harm” borrows its elegant, emotional changes from Ray Charles at his most gospel-drenched, back in the Atlantic days, and rivals Brother Ray for feel and passion. Believe me, I would never type that if I didn’t mean it. This is killer stuff. McKendree’s piano is sublime, and Ellis’s fills and solo are tough and to the point without breaking the mood in the slightest; his guitar tone is woody and appropriately old school. Bravo! Never mind his history with the Heartfixers; let no one suggest that Ellis in 2014 cannot sing and play blues with the best.

I am afraid that, over the years, I forgot just how good Tinsley Ellis could be, or at least began to take him for granted. His recent work has made my lapse impossible to sustain. Anyone who likes blues-based music should find much to appreciate on the excellent Midnight Blue.

TOM HYSLOP

Review copy of the CD was provided by the publicity firm Blind Raccoon.