John Nemeth’s soul and blues par excellence

Just because I dig these performances so much…I’m presenting a slightly revised verson of a piece that originally ran in The Golden Gate Blues Society’s newsletter (check out the Society’s excellent Web site at http://tggbs.org).

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John Németh

Blues Live

Soul Live

John Németh Music 2012

http://JohnNemeth.com/

The Memphis-based songwriter-harmonica player-singer John Németh (an Idaho native who until recently had made the Bay Area his home) has made his mark with multiple Blues Music Awards nominations and Living Blues Awards, and is widely considered to be one of the most striking vocal talents to appear in some time.  A decade into his recording career, he is both a relative newcomer and, with a pair of independent CDs and three for Blind Pig Records, all of them acclaimed, under his belt, a veteran artist.

In February 2012, Németh decided to present an ambitious overview of his music. He assembled a crackerjack band – John Lee Sanders (keys), Tommy Folen (bass guitar), Nick Fishman (drums), and Bob Welsh, A.C. Myles, and Kid Andersen (guitars) – for performances at the Point Arena Theater, the Poor House Bistro, and Biscuits and Blues; recorded those shows; and distilled them into two albums, each dedicated to an aspect of his music interests.  One reflects Németh’s Blues Live, and the other concentrates on his Soul Live.

Soul Live begins with nine Németh compositions. Most tilt toward the hard, uptempo style of R&B that flourished alongside the deep and sweet soul sounds of the ‘60s. All transcend genre to sound strikingly contemporary. “Too Good To Be True” grafts an indelible melody to a rumbling, ska-like bass line, and ices it with chicken-pickin’ guitar. (Yes, that’s right: chicken-pickin’.) “Blue Broadway” has that push-pull rhythm that encourages listeners to push back the furniture and take off their clothes. A solid four-on-the-floor beat, breakdowns in the verses, ascending chords in the chorus, a truly tuneful bridge, and a hummingbird-wing guitar solo make “Love Me Tonight” unstoppable. The irresistible “Name The Day” channels the sweet sound of Chicago soul à la Tyrone Davis. Want funk? Németh and band hint at Parliament in “Do You Really Want That Woman” and James Brown in “Funky Feelin’,” which stars tough harp and bass solos and hip, interlocking guitars (dig the superbad single note rhythm and the auto-wah!). “Magic Touch” features ace guitar solos incorporating Chuck Berry-isms, pitch shifts via tuning machine (not string-bending or whammy bars), twin-guitar harmony–the whole kitchen sink!–as well as dynamics that seem almost impossible in this roots-rocking context. The only breaks in an otherwise high-energy set come in the lilting “Fuel For Your Fire,” and in “Said Too Much,” quite a lovely deep soul ballad, sensitively played and beautifully sung. Solomon Burke’s “Home In Your Heart” and a hard-charging take on Oakland legend Rodger Collins’s “She’s Looking Good” that approaches revival-tent fervor round out this stunning disc.

The same cast plays blues just as effectively. The proof is all over the sister CD. A supple, dynamically charged reading of Fats Domino’s “Every Night About This Time” leads into the pile-driving original “Country Boy,” where the band repeatedly builds and releases in intensity behind Németh’s harp solo. Al Simmons’s wild, down-home (down-home Fresno, that is) rocker “Ain’t Too Old” follows. “Daughter Of The Devil” and “Mother-In-Law” are other fine lowdown numbers, and “Just Like You” is what blues rock would sound like in a dream world in which The Red Devils and The Blasters defined the style. Want blues with a touch of soul? Sweet and stinging, Magic Sam’s “She Belongs To Me” grooves deep. Slinky and diamond-hard, “You Know” and “Love Gone Crazy” are raw enough to sit in a blues set, funky enough to have been included on Soul Live. And the show-stopping slow blues “Blues In My Heart” may well fool you into thinking you are hearing Buddy Guy and Junior Wells in their prime. In all, Blues Live is a dynamite display of solid rhythms, gritty and inventive playing, with great tone from the guitarists and Németh on harp, and stellar singing.

Both Soul Live and Blues Live are exceptional documents that showcase Németh’s remarkable vocals and sharply focused songs, and make clear the power of a rhythm and blues band that both knows how to play the music, and leaves everything on the stage.

TOM HYSLOP

CDs for review were purchased from the online store at johnnemethblues.com

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Just For Today

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Ronnie Earl and The Broadcasters

Just For Today

Stony Plain Records, 2013

http://www.ronnieearl.com/

http://www.stonyplainrecords.com/Web/artist.asp?id=347

Ronnie Earl, the blues guitarist probably most acclaimed for expressive control of his instrument, marks the 25th year with his Broadcasters with a new live album. Just For Today, recorded at three Massachusetts venues, shows much of the unit’s scope as the combo runs through a set of shuffles, slow blues, jazz, Broadcasters music, and soul ballads.

Soul and tone, two qualities often identified in Earl’s music, are abundantly present in every note played. Consider Earl’s composition “Blues For Celie.” On this slow blues, he takes a languid first few choruses, outlining ideas in chords and single notes with subtle tonal shifts. The number has no head to speak of, but Earl maintains thematic unity as the lines flow, and explores  every variation in intensity, from whisper-quiet musings to a stirring climax.

“The Big Train” simply cooks. Earl’s lead work alternates short, vocal phrases with longer lines that spill across measures, employing hammered-on double-stops and soaring, bent notes. Dave Limina’s Hammond B3 fills out the sound with a great touch and splendid tone, whether he is comping behind Earl or delivering an ovation-worthy chord solo. The tune hangs on a simple riff, and is taken at an unhurried pace, yet the way Lorne Entress (drums) and Jim Mouradian (bass) and play together creates a perfect, unstoppable momentum. It’s hard to tell whether the false ending was planned, or if Ronnie was digging the groove so much that, in the heat of the moment, he felt compelled to lead the combo through another round.

Earl takes a couple of fine choruses on “Vernice’s Boogie,” but this rollicking piano boogie-woogie is Limina’s show. An old Earl favorite, the hard-driving “Robert Nighthawk Stomp,” also features strong 88s, as well as an ear-grabbing, very neatly phrased Earl solo that very briefly quotes “Smokestack Lightnin’.” Limina’s extended introduction to “Ain’t Nobody’s Business” is likewise played on the ivories, though he shifts to the organ once Earl steps in to outline his take on the melody, coaxing from his guitar the sweetest lines imaginable.

The moving reading of John Coltrane’s “Equinox” suggests that it is a favorite of the band: Limina and Earl turn in lovely solos over a subdued, Latin-inspired groove. “Pastorale,” “Miracle,” and “Heart Of Glass,” round out the setlist. These three songs, examples of what I earlier called Broadcasters music, are not formally blues in their chord structure; their melodic content is likewise more sophisticated than traditional blues tends to be. Not exactly jazz, and surely not rock, they are akin to tone poems that give Earl a chance to express himself in different contexts.

“Blues For Hubert Sumlin” is a purely wonderful slow blues with a long, hushed middle section that gives Earl’s bent notes, conversational phrasing, and skittering lines center stage, before bringing things to a boil. In the end, it matters little that the song offers nothing that much recalls Hubert’s highly idiosyncratic playing. Similarly, on “Rush Hour,” a thrilling, mid-tempo box shuffle intended as a tribute to Otis Rush, Earl’s ideas sound more like his own, a few backward rakes across the strings notwithstanding, than they do the great southpaw’s. The band’s powerful swagger on “Jukein’” inspires Earl and Limina to special heights. To these ears, it is the best track here for spirit, rhythmic creativity, and tonal exploration. That intensity carries over into the oft-covered Etta James classic “I’d Rather Go Blind,” here sung creditably by Diane Blue. Earl does a superb, Steve Cropper-esque job of gilding his solid rhythm arpeggios with interesting fills, and his lead break is a model of tone and taste, saying a great deal with very simple materials.

Such communication is the essence of this kind of music, and no one does it better than Ronnie Earl. The current Broadcasters lineup, consisting of veterans who have played together for some time, is confident and comfortable, yet such is their skill and heart that they never sound dispassionate or uninspired. Long instrumental programs are not everyone’s cup of tea, and even Earl’s most ardent fans have sometimes, probably justifiably, felt that they have heard him do it all before. But Just For Today sustains an exceptionally high level of engagement, excitement, and emotion. Ronnie Earl and The Broadcasters have produced an anniversary gift that is little short of amazing.

TOM HYSLOP

Review copy provided by Mark Pucci Media

Hillbilly Boogie Surfin’ Blues

HBSB

Don Leady

Hillbilly Boogie Surfin’ Blues

http://donleady.com/

www.thetailgators.com/

Don Leady, a founding member of Austin, Texas’s Leroi Brothers, may be best known for his next gig, as front man for the roots-rocking trio The Tail Gators. The original Tail Gators–Leady, Gary “Mud Cat” Smith (drums), and the legendary Keith Ferguson (electric bass)–served up an incredible, one-of-a-kind mish-mash of blues, surf, Cajun, country, Tex-Mex, soul, and rockabilly (among other flavors), and were the band to beat for low-down Americana. It’s been more than a decade and a half since the Tail Gators waxed their seventh and last long-player, It’s A Hog Groove, in 1996, so what a delight it was to discover Don Leady’s new Facebook page and to learn that he has just issued a solo CD to satisfy our cravings for dirty guitar instrumentals.

At just under half an hour’s running time, the appropriately-titled Hillbilly Boogie Surfin’ Blues is short but ever so sweet. Backed alternately by Art Kidd and Nico on drums, and playing all the guitar and bass parts himself, Leady picks up where he left off with the Tail Gators, laying down a dozen cuts of prime–and primal–roots music.  An instrumental trio more than suffices; Leady, a modern-day Don Rich, never even breaks out his fiddle, instead choosing to draw on a dizzying palette of picking and stylistic approaches on his guitar, and to employ a range of across-the-board great tones.

There’s nothing here not to like. The set opens with the charging “Bull Doggin’ Boogie.” Also on the country side of things are “Ice Cream Star,” a fast instrumental of Albert Lee-like precision with a basic boogie section in the middle to cool things down a bit, and the hammer-and-pull-a-thon “Hillbilly Blues,” in which Leady dials in a tone of steel guitar-like clarity. “Thunder And Lightning,” which closes the album, comes out of the same acrobatic bag.

The mid-tempo “Texas Dance Hall Blues” splits the difference between country and blues with panache, and delivers a few off-the-wall surprises worthy of the old Speedy West and Jimmy Bryant sides. If you yearn for pure blues, check out Leady’s cover of the Lightnin’ Hopkins chestnut “Lightnin’s Boogie”; his swinging “Fat Wolf Blues,” with its “Dust My Broom” quotation, tricky syncopations, and high-wire soloing; and the wonderfully wobbly “Slo Bo,” which plays expertly with some of Bo Diddley’s patented Latin-influenced rhythms (but not his famed hambone beat) and tricky chordal lead work.

Leady has a knack for creating moods that are almost tangible. The swamp pop confection “Louisiana Feeling” is achingly, last-dance sweet. Check out Leady’s (reverb) tanked-up frolic, “Echo Surf Boogie,” with its nods to both the California-bred surf styles and to the UK guitar hero Hank Marvin, or his tom tom-driven tribute to the garage rockin’ master, Link Wray, in “Crazy Link.” The Western epic “Ride Of The Ruthless,” originally recorded for the Big Guitars From Texas compilation back in the day, is practically cinematic in its drama and immediacy.

Talk of the Big Guitars series brings to mind a fitting description for Leady’s music: Trash, Twang, and Thunder. If you were a Tail Gators fan back in the day, I suspect you stopped reading some time ago, for at least long enough to track down and order a copy of Hillbilly Boogie Surfin’ Blues. If you are new to the guitar stylings of Don Leady, I can make only this recommendation: Get it if you ain’t got it! It is pure dynamite.

TOM HYSLOP

Review copy was purchased from http://www.cdbaby.com/

Radiogram

radio

Gwyn Ashton

Radiogram

http://www.gwynashton.com/

http://alturl.com/2v7nw to see “Roy’s Bluz” performed live

The UK-based artist Gwyn Ashton remains inexplicably under-recognized in the United States, despite his success across Europe and his excellent recordings. His 2012 release Radiogram is a powerful set of songs that should find a home in the CD and mp3 players of every fan of honest, bluesy rock.

Ashton and drummer Kev Hickman, with contributions from Don Airey (Hammond organ for Deep Purple, Rainbow, Whitesnake, and Black Sabbath) and Honeydrippers Mark Stanway (keyboards), Robbie Blunt (guitar), and Mo Birch (backing vocals), turn in a wide-ranging set. The riff behind “Little Girl,” a bone-cruncher in full AC/DC mode that features Ashton and guest Kim Wilson on harmonica, maintains the all-important swing that separates exciting rock from the soulless variety. “Let Me In,” a stylized boogie with Johnny Mastro on harp, bristles with barely-contained energy, threatening at several junctures to blow both speakers and amplifier alike. With chiming guitars, a gritty vocal, and impressive dynamic shifts, the mid-tempo rocker “Don’t Want To Fall” would, in a perfect world, dominate the airwaves in any decade: its melody line can certainly compete with anything Def Leppard ever cooked up. Pay special attention to the arrangement, which features unexpected touches like the George Harrison-inflected slide work that fills a brief, crucial space in the song.

“I Just Wanna Make Love” recasts the Willie Dixon-penned Muddy Waters number “I Just Want To Make Love To You,” offering grooving, edge-of-meltdown guitar breaks that are perfect in a slightly Hendrix-inflected way.  Sizzling tones on Ashton’s funky rhythm guitar keep the track really cooking. “Dog Eat Dog,” a grinding rocker laid over a shuffle beat, affords Ashton plenty of space to break out his bluesiest guitar lines, and he loads the cut with cutting fills and a snarling solo full of unrelenting attitude, groove, and surprising ideas. “For Your Love” splits the difference between “Dog” and “Love,” delivering mind-bending guitar lines over a spare, gritty slow grind.

“Comin’ Home” is the pick hit here from a pop aspect (and who can’t appreciate a genuinely catchy number?). Ashton sings an irresistible melody over a track that develops from eighth-note guitar clicks (shades of The Cars!) to a chunky, Rolling Stones-like rhythm, filled out with solid slide and baritone guitar leads. It’s simply great. On the blues end, “Bluz For Roy” is Ashton’s splendid tribute to the late Telecaster genius Roy Buchanan. Raw-toned, with wildly bent notes, chicken-picking, volume knob swells, and other assorted hand-and-guitar-only effects, “Bluz” captures Buchanan’s creativity and spirit as well as anything I’ve heard. Hats off to Mr Ashton.

On the relatively subdued “Fortunate Kind,” Ashton plays a Weissenborn lap steel, turning over lead guitar duties to the Robert Plant band veteran Robbie Blunt. The country-ish feel of the track lends it a flavor strongly reminiscent of The Band, with its tempo and driving drum part in particular recalling “The Weight.” That’s pretty good company. Along the same lines, you’ll want to pay particular attention to the ballad “Angel,” which serves almost as a continuation of Jimi Hendrix’s song of the same title by employing a similar tempo and melody. While the middle guitar break is evocative and emotional in its simplicity, the heat increases measurably on the extended ride-out solo as Ashton alternates legato and bitten-off phrases and makes masterful use of controlled feedback. The dynamics develop so naturally that when things quiet down again for a final, delicate exit, everything sounds perfectly right, and quite beautiful.

How refreshing it is to be able to celebrate a hard rock album that adults can enjoy. That’s not meant to infer that Radiogram is enervated or predictable–quite the opposite. Nor, at the other end of the scale, is it pretentious or arty. It is just right: nothing here feels either tarted up or dumbed down. Gwyn Ashton’s music is thoughtful and complex when it needs to be, making good use of smart rhythms and splendid tones without seeming flash. And while he wears his influences on his sleeve, he never does so too conspicuously. All that qualifies as good music in my book. Consider that high praise, coming as it does from a listener who rarely programs this sort of music, but who appreciates it when it is done this well.

TOM HYSLOP

Digital files for review were provided by the artist.

Preview: Holland K. Smith’s Cobalt

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In the late ‘90s and early ‘00s, Holland K. Smith issued three stone killer albums of blues and roots rock that somehow didn’t catch fire in a big way. His long-awaited new CD, tentatively titled Cobalt and due from EllerSoul Records later this year, ought to remedy that.

Listeners who are hip to Smith’s previous work will find the honest, effective vocals and distinctive, toneful guitar work they expect. What’s new is the stylistic range of the Texas artist’s vision. In addition to his trademark bluesy sounds, Smith dips into swinging organ jazz on the title track and takes a hip, off-kilter approach to Latin sounds on “Olhos Verdes.” And, for those who haven’t had the good fortune to follow him in club appearances, the playlist’s strong emphasis on the various shades of soul music will be as surprising as it is welcome. Smith has penned a solid suite of songs that includes vintage-style R&B ballads, doo wop, country soul, and creamy Memphis soul á la Hi Records. Strong arrangements featuring organ and horns really bring these cuts to life.

World, get ready: the gritty, beautiful Cobalt should put Holland K. Smith’s name on the lips of everyone who takes American music seriously.

http://www.hollandksmith.com/

http://www.ellersoulrecords.com/news.html

Digital files for review purposes were provided by the artist.

 

The Memphis Mix EP

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Big Gene & Danny Lee’s Loud Pack

The Memphis Mix EP

http://loudpack.org/

The Tennessee-based Loud Pack ply an especially appealing version of contemporary blues. Their Memphis Mix EP was originally slated to be a full-length album. When half the recorded tracks vanished (computers improve our lives, don’t you know?), however, the band decided to make what remained in the can available as an EP, in order to raise funds to help the Pack take part in the 2013 International Blues Challenge.

It’s a good thing for the rest of us that they did. The Loud Pack is a tremendously exciting band, firmly rooted in traditional blues but with a solid dose of sweet soul. Dig the very first track on the Mix EP, “Gonna Be Fine.” Steve Michel (guitar), Ryan Johnson (bass) and Jared White (drums) lay down a solid, mid-tempo shuffle. Stevie Jones’s organ pad tips the scale in the direction of greasy Memphis soul. And when Big Gene Chandler begins to sing…well, it’s all over.  He’s got that elusive “it,” that edgy, emotive quality to the voice that all the best deep soul singers had. Among contemporaries, Tré Williams, Tad Robinson, Curtis Salgado, John Németh, and Ryan Shaw are there, and not many others. Danny Lee Michel’s guitar lines are terse and incisive, a bit jagged (the better to create tension), and eminently toneful. A great melody and sensible lyrics seal the deal.

“Gonna Be Fine” establishes high production values that characterize the rest of the disc, but it’s hardly a template: this is a varied set unified by an unshakable, soul-blues sensibility. “Good Lovin’” is a powerful slow number, rooted in the pure blues approach of the rhythm section and in a dynamite organ part, pushed into edgier territory by the guitar fills and leads. “Tennessee Blues” alternates hard funk verses with deeply melodic choruses; its bold chord changes and mood shifts give Big Gene the chance to demonstrate a wide range, while Danny Lee dials in an aggressive (yet still blues-approved) sound, making his super-slinky lines pop out of the mix.

The Loud Pack plays straight ahead blues just as effectively. Consider the rhythm arrangement behind “Fess Up,” which recalls Magic Sam’s groundbreaking infusion of soul into his blues, with perhaps a bit of the drive and intensity of Otis Clay’s live sides. There’s a great, fat-toned organ solo from Jones here. “Change In Things” offers a slower groove, based in Danny Lee’s Robert Lockwood Jr.-inspired guitar lines. The lead work on this cut is left to guest artist Paul Linden, a veteran of Sean Costello’s band, whose swooping, imaginative, and athletic harmonica lines echo Walter Horton’s.

Based on The Memphis Mix EP, it is hard to believe that Big Gene and Danny Lee’s Loud Pack did not advance to the IBC finals. Their songwriting is appealingly catchy. The rhythm section has an unfailingly good feel, and the keys and guitar up front balance the solo options and the sound. Both Jones and Michel have terrific instincts, and play with creativity and great tone. And Big Gene is a truly exceptional singer. This project blends as well as anything out there a pure blues aesthetic with just the right elements of modern R&B, and avoids any whiff of the pre-packaged sound that permeates so much contemporary soul blues. I can’t say enough good things about this must-hear music.

Tom Hyslop

Digital files for review purposes were provided by the artist.

Secretly Famous

The Rev Jimmie Bratcher
Secretly Famous
2013

http://www.jimmiebratcher.com/

To judge by his seventh long-player, The Rev Jimmie Bratcher is not your typical blues rocker. His writing is strong, and his singing, unmannered yet entirely convincing, is right on target. On the guitar side, his tones are varied and never strident. Rhythm parts are well thought out and interesting, and leads are based in feel rather than furious fret attack. Another key element in the just-released Secretly Famous’s appeal is a rhythm section (Craig Kew, bass; Lester Estelle, drums) that is more than capable of shading its approach. This is all to the good: the performances are tough enough to satisfy listeners from the rock camp, without overdoing the clichés that turn off real blues fans.

On what he says is his most roots-based album, Bratcher shows an impressive stylistic range. “Jupiter And Mars,” co-written with his son Jason, offers a fresh take on the undying subject matter of cars and girls over a satisfyingly greasy and spacious groove. With its wild drive, crisp Gibson leads, and a Leslie-fied rhythm guitar mimicking a Hammond organ, “Feels Like Friday” sounds like vintage Allman Brothers. The mid-tempo “Nowhere To Go But Down” pairs an indelible melody line with a slinky arrangement that is, improbably, both laid-back and punchy. “I Can’t Shake That Thing” splits the difference between Delbert McClinton and The Meters. Bratcher’s delivery strikes a perfect, and appealing, note on the lighthearted, country-blues flavored “Bologna Sandwich Man.”

Secretly Famous serves up several undeniable earworms. Consider the memorable guitar line and distinctive mood shifts in “When I Fall Apart” (a likely hit, had it been released 35 years ago); the genius combination of power pop and crunchy, Stones-inspired riffing in “Starting All Over Again”; and the laid-bare, impassioned reading of The Association’s 1960s hit “Never My Love,” a surprising inclusion that really works. Perhaps the album’s craftiest track is the funky, Little Feat-styled “57.” Here Bratcher cleverly sings the praises of Shure’s ubiquitous microphone in terms that would as easily suit a feminine subject. Not every song is as successful. The rowdy “Check Your Blues At The Door” seems written-to-order and trite, and the ballad “It Just Feels Right” is, to these ears, mawkish boilerplate (though it could well be a contemporary country hit).

I’ll be completely candid and tell you that a couple of my personal biases surfaced when I heard about Secretly Famous. I am suspicious when I see the honorific “Reverend” in use, unless the Reverend in question is a civil rights leader or at work in church (I make an exeption for Billy Gibbons’s clearly lighthearted use of the term, largely because I’m not certain he has ever self-applied the title). And the blues rockers who typically engage Jim Gaines to produce are not, in general, my cup of tea. So, despite a personal recommendation from Bratcher’s publicist telling me I would likely enjoy the new CD, I almost took a pass. I would have missed hearing a good one.

Tom Hyslop

Review copy provided by Mark Pucci Media.