Out Of My Mind

cassie

Cassie Taylor

Out Of My Mind

Yellow Dog Records, 2013

yellowdogrecords.com/news/

www.cassietaylorband.com/

Cassie Taylor grew up in public to a rare degree. Not long after she began playing the electric bass at age 12, she undertook a ten-year-long tour of duty, performing with her father, Otis Taylor. She released her first solo recording, Blue, in 2011. Now 26, she has written and recorded a new long-player–the first, she says, to really express her own vision.

Out Of My Mind is by no means strictly a blues album. Its 13 songs draw on a rich array of styles, filtered through Taylor’s keen musical sensibility. The program opens with the two-part “Ol’ Mama Dean,” both of them rockers driven by Steve Mignano’s heavy guitar work and shot through with organ. Taylor, her voice sometimes treated with effects, tells the story of a woman condemned to death for killing her abusive husband. Taylor (bass) and Larry Thompson (drums) unfurl “Spare Some Love” at a funereal tempo. Mignano’s single-coil tone is colored with just the right amount of hair, and, despite its dramatic moves, his solo never takes on any hint of posturing as it builds to a stormy crescendo, then ebbs back into the song’s haunting, bare-bones frame.

“No Ring Blues” boasts an indelible melody, its offbeat phrasing accentuated by a quirky, almost robotic, stop-and-start rhythm defined by Taylor’s distorted bass guitar. “Gone And Dead,” with a similar approach to the groove, is at once unsettling and appealing: Taylor’s vocal is cool, almost seductive, though her subject matter is grim; and the guitar and organ tones are altered to an almost queasy degree. It is a study in curious contrasts. An insistent pulse and overdubbed, processed guitars lend “No No” a glinting, New Wave-sleek air. Notwithstanding some rhythmic playfulness during the solo section, the catchy “That’s My Man” is far more straightforward, a streamlined rocker with a solid blues foundation.

Taylor works as interestingly, and successfully, in other genres. The title track, fattened by Steven Vidaic’s Hammond organ, is a mid-tempo soul inferno, laden with irresistible vocal and instrumental hooks. “Forgiveness” layers horns over a driving, relentlessly upbeat, folky rhythm. The minor key verses of “New Orleans” creep along like an alley cat, muted trumpet adding bordello flair, while its upbeat choruses are awash in buoyant horns. Mignano’s guitar break is slinky and dirty. Taylor invests the beautiful pop-y melody of “Lay Your Head On My Pillow” with a warm intimacy, her images outlining long-term love over a striking acoustic guitar figure. The disc closes with “Again,” a fine R&B ballad with a stop-time section, a wonderfully tender and tough guitar break, and elements of Ray Charles and Randy Newman echoed in the arrangement, which hinges on Taylor’s piano.

One of my favorite things about Cassie Taylor is that she–almost uniquely, it seems, among blues-based female vocalists–has no interest in being the next Koko Taylor. Instead, she sings with a beautifully pure tone that is no less powerful, or less emotionally resonant, for its clarity. Beyond that, her writing is both intelligent and moving, with exceptionally strong melodies and challenging rhythms, and her production is vivid and adventuresome. Taylor is an artist to watch, and her Out Of My Mind is a splendid album that explores pop, rock, and soul from many angles, yet remains deeply informed by the blues.

TOM HYSLOP

Review copy provided by Yellow Dog Records.

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“You can challenge me, but I find that music is humans’ most advanced achievement, more so than painting and writing, because it’s more mysterious, more magical, and it acts in such a direct way. Trying to turn lead into gold is nothing compared to taking something mechanical like an instrument…and using it to evoke a human soul, preserved through the centuries.”

– concert violinist Christian Tetzlaff, in The New Yorker, 2012-08-27

Be Somebody

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Mighty Mike Schermer

Be Somebody

Finedog Records, 2013

http://www.mighty-mike.com/

Those relatively unfamiliar with the music of Mighty Mike Schermer may know him as a member of one of Austin’s all-star groups, the Little Elmore Reed Blues Band, or as Marcia Ball’s guitarist, or as a solo artist. That only scratches the surface. With nearly three decades’ worth of experience playing the blues from his base in the Bay Area, and, since 2009, Texas, Schermer has been a valued sideman for the likes of Angela Strehli, Elvin Bishop, Howard Tate, Sista Monica, Charlie Musselwhite, Terry Hanck, and Bonnie Raitt, as well as the experienced frontman of the Soul Drivers and the Mighty Mike Schermer Band, with a number of solo albums to his credit. He has just followed up 2008’s hot Live Set with his fifth release, Be Somebody, a joyride that cuts a wide swath through American roots and soul music.

Schermer, who penned all of the new CD’s songs, recorded the album with a number of great players in California and in Texas, working (as the cover art indicates) “Left Coast to 3rd Coast.” That 3rd, Gulf coast, thoroughly informs the rowdy title track, which opens with a twangy, country-flavored introduction before resolving into a swaggering, roadhouse romp: blending R&B, blues, and roots rock, it is a textbook example of the cross-pollinated music of Texas and its environs, and serves also as a high-level overview of Schermer’s interests. “Be Somebody” could be a song by Marcia Ball, who (coincidentally or not) plays piano on it. A list of humorous possibilities trenchantly fleshes out the premise Bob Dylan advanced when he sang, “I try my best to be just like I am/But everybody wants you to be just like them.”

“Things Ain’t Everything,” up next, dispenses solid wisdom. Clavinet, organ, and wah-wah guitar accent a deliberate, syncopated groove that is part Meters, part P-Funk, and extremely greasy. The shuffling “Corazon,” recorded with his Little Elmore Reed bandmates, comes together over Lewis Stephens’s honky-tonk piano and features Elvin Bishop’s keening slide guitar. Schermer himself handles the slide on “My Baby Only Loves Me When She’s Drunk,” a country-leaning roadhouse number, also cut with the Little Elmore Reed crew. “Someday” delivers a rootsy blast with some of the R&B-blues hybrid feel of Freddy King’s early sides. Schermer’s guitar cracks like a whip over the rockin’ rhythm laid down by Ronnie James and Damien Llanes.

The melodic, languid “In My Mind’s Eye” introduces Schermer’s soulful side; his guitar solo is restrained, yet shows quirky personality in its phrasing and attack. The easy-going “Stickin’ To You” mines the same vein. Llanes and James create an infectious bounce on the unabashed plea “Got To Feel Love,” another soul-kissed cut with a more contemporary feel and a suggestion of reggae in the mid-song breakdown and Dale Ockerman’s swirling organ. The same lineup swings the swinging, uptown blues “Keep Reachin’ For The Top,” with the organ high in the mix and Schermer conjuring the stinging, ice-cold style of his early inspiration Albert Collins.

“Do Me Like That” is a lilting number that unmistakably evokes the memory of Sam Cooke. Its stripped-bare arrangement–saxophones by Thad Scott and “Kaz” Kazanoff over the rhythm put down by James and Llanes–is quite lovely. A similar feel informs “Lonely Hearts,” which retains the saxes, adds Austin de Lone’s ethereal electric piano, and replaces Llanes with Paul Revelli. “Over My Head,” cut from the same cloth, sports a busier soundscape, with Paul Revelli and Steve Ehrmann’s rhythm augmented by organ (Stephens), piano (de Lone), and saxophone (Nancy Wright).  This kind of material really suits Schermer, who is equaled only by James Hunter in shaping a modern-day version of proto-soul.

Schermer has a wonderfully unforced and natural singing style that is just right in soul, blues, and roots contexts. A confirmed Telecaster man, he dials in a guitar tone that’s punchy and appealing; his often surprising playing is conversational, highly melodic, and always fitted to the song. His well-crafted songs invariably set their melodic hooks deep; the arrangements clearly receive loving attention. All these elements come together in a natural, easy, and uncontrived manner. Be Somebody offers a dozen compelling reasons to get acquainted with Mighty Mike Schermer, someone of taste and talent.

TOM HYSLOP

Review copy was purchased from cdbaby.com

Days Like This

Valori

Linda Valori

Days Like This

LeArt World Music, 2013

www.lindavaloriofficial.com/

http://www.leartproduction.com/en

The Italian singer Linda Valori has a big, dramatic voice. She can generate a brassy roar, or dial down to an introspective level. For her new project, Valori traveled to Chicago to work with producer and guitarist Larry Skoller. In addition to a basic guitar-bass-drums rhythm section, the instrumental lineup features keys, percussion, harmonica, and a horn section of trumpet, tenor saxophone, and baritone sax. The resulting album, Days Like This, is an interesting, occasionally innovative set, heavy on classic R&B given a contemporary shine, with some straightforward blues along the way.

Where Van Morrison’s original of the title cut was leisurely soul, Valori’s supercharged version is upbeat, with an electrifying horn chart and an irresistible combination of drum pattern, keyboards, and vibes straight out of a Motown bag. Ike Turner fans will appreciate the love shown the late bandleader, whose catalog is twice called on, for the shuffling “The Way You Love Me” and the exotic “I Idolize You,” in which an edgy solo by guest guitarist Mike Wheeler cuts through the track’s urban shimmer, which, reminiscent as it is of some of the B.B. King-Crusaders collaborations, sounds slightly dated.

A solid trio of songs closes the long-player. A version of Janis Joplin’s “Move Over” sacrifices some grit but gains in percolating funkiness, due largely to Billy Dickens’s electric bass. Punchy horns and some stinging lead guitar from Wheeler make for a splendid recording of Bobby Bland’s “I Smell Trouble” on which Valori is appropriately tough. “If I Can’t Have You” is arranged to retain the raunchy flavor of the immortal original, with its talkative saxophones recreated by Doug Corcoran and Marqueal Jordan. Valori gamely does her best with Etta James’s part, and though she can’t match the original for raw sensuality, acquits herself well. Mike Avery is impressively smooth in the duet’s Harvey Fuqua role.

The prime tracks come in the middle of the program, with a take on Ray Charles’s “Your Love Is So Doggone Good” that evokes the sultry feel Etta James brought to her reading of “You Can Leave Your Hat On.” Also superb is Valori’s cover of Deitra Farr’s exultant, upbeat “It’s My Time.” She deftly handles the acrobatic melody and quick changes, and the band is right on time with the soul blues arrangement, highlighted by Corcoran’s memorable trumpet solo.

The sole misstep is a fine, creative reggae arrangement of The Pretenders’ “Don’t Get Me Wrong” that simply doesn’t fit into the setlist’s flow. Overcoming one potential hurdle, Valori sings largely without accent throughout the album, though a detectable (not distracting) trace creeps in at the slowest tempos, as in the Bobby Charles ballad “The Jealous Kind.” Consider Days Like This and its updated gloss on traditional R&B an enjoyable calling card, introducing Linda Valori to U.S. listeners as a capable singer of technique, passion, and taste.

TOM HYSLOP

Review copy provided by Frank Roszak Radio Promotions.

Knockin’ Around These Blues

Knockin Around

John Primer and Bob Corritore

Knockin’ Around These Blues

Delta Groove Music, Inc., 2013

http://www.johnprimerblues.com/

www.bobcorritore.com/

deltagrooveproductions.com/

By way of introducing two men who need no introduction: Harmonica player Bob Corritore came up during the 1970s in Chicago, playing and hanging out with a who’s who of bluesmen, before moving to Phoenix. Over the past 30-plus years, he has helped to make his new home an oasis for blues musicians in the Southwest, as record producer, radio host, and owner of the fabled Rhythm Room. Guitarist John Primer spent the 1970s opposite Sammy Lawhorn at Theresa’s Lounge, served in Muddy Waters’s last band, and led the classic lineup of Teardrops behind Magic Slim for over a decade, before beginning an acclaimed solo career. Today, he is at the top of his game, and unquestionably one of the very greatest proponents of the classic Chicago blues sound.

Primer and Corritore finally got together last year to record Knockin’ Around These Blues. The two sessions that produced the album featured some of today’s finest traditional blues musicians: in Arizona, Chris James (guitar), Patrick Rynn (bass), and Brian Fahey (drums) formed the rhythm section; in Chicago, the band was made up of Billy Flynn (guitar), Bob Stroger (bass), and Kenny Smith (drums). Barrelhouse Chuck Goering, recognized as the premier blues pianist by Kim Wilson, Nick Moss, and others in the know, appears on every track. The ensembles play this music correctly, by weaving individual solos, not parts, into a sound that possesses both a seamless unity and nearly infinite complexities.

Of course, the marquee players came prepared. Corritore, though perhaps less well known than other harmonica players, has clearly assimilated the styles of the masters, including both of the Walters and the two Sonny Boys, without becoming an imitator, and plays with superb tone and admirable taste. Primer is a guitarist’s guitarist, with a keen sense of how to turn time and rhythm to his advantage, a mastery of the repetition and variation of motifs, and the ability to steer a mood tough or tender at any time–he has a great feel. Whether he is playing slide or single-string leads, Primer adds his own personal touch, even as he extends tradition. Moreover, he has quietly become one of the deepest and most expressive blues singers we have. He is just such a natural at this; he sounds as if he were born to do it. I’ve seen him win over blues rockers so unequivocally that they go forth and sin no more.

The result of their collaboration is one of the best blues albums in recent memory. Primer contributes “When I Get Lonely,” a fast number in the mode of Elmore James’s “Stranger Blues.” I hear traces of Little Walter’s work on John Brim’s “Rattlesnake” in Corritore’s cutting solo. Corritore submits a latter-day “Juke” in his rip-snorting “Harmonica Joyride,” as fine a harmonica instrumental as you’re likely to hear this year, and just right at two and a half minutes in length. Although these are the lone originals in the program, the covers are all wonderful songs, not too often recorded. They include selections from outside the subgenre at hand–Junior Parker’s “Man Or Mouse” is artfully maneuvered into a lump shuffle supported by Chuck’s piano flourishes, while the Lightnin’ Hopkins number “Going Back Home” is transformed into a Muddy Waters-style slow blues, with Corritore blowing a heavy solo with overtones of Cotton and early Junior Wells–as well as songs from the Chicago blues catalog both familiar (as in a sublime take on Little Walter’s downcast “Blue And Lonesome” wherein Chuck is brilliant, Corritore’s control and phrasing are stunning, Chris James approximates a tough, Muddy Waters solo sans slide, and Primer does the same with bottleneck) and obscure (an enthusiastic, good-time shuffle through Jimmy Reed’s “The Clock”).

Choosing favorites from a set this good may not be a valuable exercise, but I’ll attempt it, and point readers who might not be full-album listeners to a pair of cuts that, coincidentally, serve more or less as chronological bookends to the playlist. “Little Boy Blue” began life in 1941 as one of Robert Lockwood Jr.’s first recordings. Here it is given the deepest Muddy makeover, with Primer gliding easily into falsetto range in an impassioned vocal. A gritty take on Artie “Blues Boy” White’s 1977 hit “Leanin’ Tree,” propelled by wiry guitar, throbbing harp, and pounding piano, represents the later evolution of hard Chicago blues, and is among the most dramatic and rough-edged performances here.

The level of interplay going on throughout the recording suggests that these musicians are particularly sensitive listeners. There is little danger of boredom when the players understand and bring to life the myriad shadings possible in three chords and twelve bars, as this crew does. Corritore turns in an MVP-level performance, and I’ll mention again the excellence of Primer’s singing, which truly is something special. In addition, his guitar tone–a big, clear sound he gets from Epiphone guitars and a Twin Reverb that once belonged to Junior Wells–is beautiful, with perhaps a little more edge to it than usual. In Knockin’ Around These Blues, John Primer and Bob Corritore have delivered a certain contender for year-end awards and Best Of lists.

TOM HYSLOP

Review copy provided by Delta Groove.

On The Verge

on the verge

The Fabulous Thunderbirds

On The Verge

Severn Records, 2013

http://fabulousthunderbirds.com/

http://severnrecords.com/

As the Fabulous Thunderbirds near their 40th anniversary, the only constant in the band’s lineup is its front man, Kim Wilson. The extraordinary singer and harmonica wizard has his pick of the very best players, from among whom he chooses exceedingly wisely, and clearly exercises absolute control over the unit’s vision and sound, which has remained for the most part very consistent through years of personnel changes. Until now. On their new album, the Fabulous Thunderbirds expand the flirtation with soul music that provided a hit in the 1980s (their cover of Sam & Dave’s “Wrap It Up”) into a full-fledged courtship. The band’s once stripped-down sound is fleshed out with the addition of keyboards, backing vocals, percussion, and a four-piece horn section, and the ten new songs comprising On The Verge, most of them written by Wilson, with help from guest keyboardist Kevin Anker and Severn regulars David Earl and Steve Gomes, explore soul and R&B from a number of angles.

Wilson sings for all he is worth on the opener, “I Want To Believe,” a midtempo number with a determinedly positive message and an insistent, Stax-y push-pull feel reminiscent of the funkiest Otis Redding and Staple Singer grooves. Bassist Randy Bermudes’ terrific “Runnin’ From The Blues” gets a country soul treatment much in the vein of Joe Simon’s immortal “The Chokin’ Kind,” pulled together with twangy, deep-set guitar hooks. “Hold Me” is in the vein of artists like Clarence Carter. The interesting Kevin Anker piano figure that appears in the introduction and during the choruses lacks a dominant tonality, and is a bit unsettling in this traditional Southern soul context.

Several dark threads run through On The Verge. Over a slinky, minor key groove that tops the feel of Bobby Bland’s “I Wouldn’t Treat A Dog” with some special O.V. Wright sauce, “Too Much Water” chronicles the end of a relationship. The album’s closer, “Lonely Highway,” is an excellent slow number with moody horns, again reminiscent of O.V.’s Hi Records sides. And while many blues have dealt with poverty, few have presented the situation as starkly as “Do You Know Who I Am,” a stately soul ballad that calls for understanding and help from the vantage of the economically deprived, unemployed, and homeless.

“Got To Bring It With You” serves up dirty funk that marries wah-wah guitar to a horn chart that stepped straight out of an Al Green or O.V. session. Its simple guitar solo is more thematic than improvisational. “That’s The Way We Roll” is even more lowdown–this is heavy, trailer park funk, baby, with a slow-dragging, syncopated groove. Wilson blows minimalistic, distorted harp, and sings through the harp microphone for extra grease. At the other end of the R&B spectrum, “Lovin’ Time” has a pop-inflected melody that befits the lyric’s fond reminiscences. Smooth electric piano and organ, hand drums, and the airy, interlocking guitars form a distinctive arrangement. Gomes’s “Diamonds Won’t Kiss You Back,” with its intricate guitar and bass parts, catchy, riffing horns, and beautiful, melodic vocal line, is sweet soul directly from the Chicago school.

One observation: Although The Fabulous Thunderbirds’ last two lineups have featured some of most exciting guitar players on the planet, Wilson has seemed oddly reluctant to let them loose on record (this is emphatically not the case in concert). Nick Curran and Kirk Fletcher were largely indistinguishable from each other on Painted On, and while Johnny Moeller and Mike Keller’s guitar parts are crucial to the new CD’s sound (and often quite memorable), virtually no lead guitar can be heard, even though this style of music can certainly lends itself to instrumental breaks–just listen to Stax-era Albert King, anything Little Milton cut after the mid-1960s, or recent albums by, for instance, John Németh. Wilson himself barely cuts loose on his instrument. I’ll extend this line of thinking to include the rhythm section: Jason Moeller, one of the world’s premier shuffle drummers, doesn’t get to drive one home. While I can appreciate the focus on the songwriting and singing, it seems a shame that Wilson passed up the opportunity to record this hot lineup really showing its stuff.

That may well be a churlish attitude, as the album sounds fine the way it has been delivered. While there is the risk that On The Verge will alienate longtime fans who prefer to hear the tough, butt-rockin’ blues on which the T-Birds built their reputation, its tilt to the soulful side of the blues makes for a cohesive and successful album. Its polish, inherent tunefulness, and creamy feel should win the Fabulous Thunderbirds additional fans.

TOM HYSLOP

Review copy provided by Mark Pucci Media.

Tomorrow

tomorrow

Andy Poxon

Tomorrow

EllerSoul Records, 2013

andypoxon.com/

http://www.ellersoulrecords.com/

I’ll get this out of the way: Andy Poxon, at 18 years old, is a recording veteran. His first CD, Red Roots, was released three years ago. Now, I don’t rate age any more than I pay attention to looks when I listen to music. I like to consider talent on its own merits, and youth seems most often to be used as a marketing gimmick, like girls with guitars. Neither in itself is any sort of big deal, nor–like Poxon’s distinctive, blazing red Afro–has it any relevance to the music. But this Washington, D.C.-based singer-songwriter-guitarist, whose new album Tomorrow has just been released by EllerSoul Records, is unmistakably developing into an artist to watch.

2009’s Red Roots, recorded with his working band (bass and drums), was sung well enough and played with some flair. But in essence it was a rather workmanlike album informed by classic rock moves, splashed with some pleasant R&B flavor and a few straight-up blues numbers, some of them quite derivative. The new album is something else entirely. Tomorrow is a quantum leap forward. In collaborating with producer Duke Robillard (who, along his band, also performs), Poxon seems invigorated.

Excellent arrangements and a seasoned supporting cast are some keys to Tomorrow’s success. One of the secret weapons in play is the Roomful of Blues horn section: Doug Woolverton (trumpet), Mark Earley (tenor and bari sax), and Rich Lataille (tenor and alto sax). Their fills are always right on, and the (uncredited) charts are memorable and infectious, bringing the tracks vividly to life. Bruce Bears makes important contributions, fleshing out the sound with washes of organ and piano that is here rollicking, there dreamy. Brad Hallen (basses) and Mark Teixeira (drums) consistently prove that they can lay down a perfect rhythm behind any style.

At the center of attention, Poxon’s singing is unmannered and effective; his guitar work is creative and assured, with a wide tonal palette; and his songs are genre-perfect exemplars of soul, blues, ballads, and rock, yet have the spark of originality. The stylistic reach is impressive. “College Boy” is pumping, roots rock in prime Chuck Berry style, with a well-constructed, raw guitar lead. “Please Come Home” hints at time spent listening to Ray Charles’s deepest R&B ballads, “All By Myself” channels Dave Bartholomew’s more raucous productions for Fats Domino, and “Without Me” sounds like it has at least a little Spanish Harlem soul in its lineage. “You Lied” is part Don Covay, part Coasters; “Too Bad,” a soul shuffle, boasts a perfect horn chart and an intentionally primitive guitar solo that does just the trick. The slow rocker “Carol Anne” finds common ground between Derek & The Dominos and the Bottle Rockets. Wistful without becoming maudlin, “Tomorrow,” with its luscious, clarion, jazz-inflected solo, makes a sublime closing time ballad. Cool vocals and a stuttering guitar break knock the swinging “Don’t Come Home” clean out of sight.

Nor is the blues side of things neglected. In “You Don’t Love Me,” a tough rumba-shuffle, Poxon displays a killer attitude torn from the pages of early-period B.B. King, with a touch of Freddy. “Fooling Around” is a bracingly uptempo 1950s-style Chicago blues that sounds like a tip of the hat to “Who’s Been Cheating Who,” a song by one of Poxon’s favorite artists, Sean Costello. Texeira and Bears, along with a wild guitar solo, star here. The album closes with a splendid jazz instrumental, “Jammin’ At Lakewest,” that has Poxon and Robillard trading choruses bursting with hip melodic and rhythmic ideas.

Andy Poxon seems to have found his own voice as part of a continuing tradition. It seems paradoxical, but Tomorrow’s shift toward more classic blues and soul forms has resulted in music of new excitement and originality.  To return to a statement I made earlier, Tomorrow is something else! Highly recommended.

TOM HYSLOP

Review copy provided by Frank Roszak Radio Promotions.

Great Day In The Morning

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Brad Vickers & His Vestapolitans

Great Day In The Morning

ManHatTone, 2013

http://www.BradVickers.com

On Great Day In The Morning, Brad Vickers and his cohort of New Yorkers continue in the vein established over their first three releases: a full band, playing predominantly acoustially; a broad-minded attitude toward styles, with a pre-war blues and jazz feel often informing the music (due only in part to the presence of staple jug and string band instrumentation); and smart songwriting that eschews the usual suspects and subjects, and leans hard toward the lighthearted end of the spectrum.

The title track, “Chapter And Verse,” “This Might Not Be Your Day,” and “Saving String Rag” are representative good-time numbers. More serious fare comes in “Sit Down And Talk,” a terrific slow number arranged for a simple trio that hints at both Delta blues and a posh, languid sound, and the gospel-inflected “Together For Good,” sung in subdued, soulful fashion by Peters and guests Christine Santelli and Gina Sicilia. The upbeat “The Way It’s Got To Be,” the Caribbean-flavored “It’s A Good Life,” and the roll-and-tumble “Train Goin’ Westward Bound” are other solid tracks. Covers from the songbooks of Tampa Red and Memphis Minnie round out the playlist.

Vickers’s slide work is exciting, and the other instrumentalists contribute strong parts, especially Charles Burnham and Margey Peters on fiddle (if one likes that sort of thing), Matt Cowan (bari sax), Jim Davis (tenor and clarinet), V.D. King (banjolele), and guest Jeremy Baum (keys). The vocals are less assured. Vickers has a dispassionate style of delivery that, on the bright side, is unaffected. On the downside, it can tend to sound monotonal. His sometime singing partner Margey Peters has a kind of warble in her voice that recalls old-time records. That same quality, however, makes her sound pitchy.

While there are other bands that take a determinedly throwback approach, none of them, to my knowledge, is incorporating that sound as casually as The Vestapolitans, who don’t exclusively trade on it.  But I’m not certain who Vickers’s target audience may be. Fans of acoustic blues might find these proceedings a bit busy or overwhelming, yet even the uptempo numbers could, to the ears of dedicated listeners of electric blues, be perceived as a bit bloodless. In the happiest outcome, the Vestapolitans’ no-man’s-land stylings would be recognized by all as a welcome change of pace, marking the proverbial nice place to visit, even if one wouldn’t want to live there.

TOM HYSLOP

Review copy provided by Frank Roszak Radio Promotions.

Fistful Of Blues

FOB fin

GWYN ASHTON

Fistful Of Blues EP

2013

http://www.gwynashton.com/

Singer-guitarist Gwyn Ashton follows last year’s rock epic Radiogram with a splendid little package. Fistful Of Blues, a four-song EP, explores blues rock from several angles, always with Ashton’s characteristic taste and nuance.

“Take You Home Tonight” kicks off the program with style. A shuffle boogie taken at medium tempo, it’s played with such vigor that it feels like it’s accelerating. Ashton plays slide with assurance, here echoing his vocal line, there dazzling with cascades of notes during the breakdown section, wisely keeping the groove paramount. His tone, toppy on the single notes, grinds into throaty breakup on double-stops and chords. Thoughts of Rory Gallagher are certain to arise.

“On The Borderline” sketches the story of a breakup over a sparse rhythm: one could drive a truck through the minimalist bass line and jazzy traps. The pace picks up, moving into a walking blues as the track progresses. Ashton dials in a snappy Strat tone and, squeezing out truly wild bends and spitting short bursts of notes, constructs a vivid solo that echoes Richard Thompson as much as it does Buddy Guy.

“Waiting For The Day” is a rocker with effective dynamics in the music, and a lyric that moves from dark to defiant. Except in the choruses, which are played as a straight shuffle, the drumbeat maintains a martial feel. The solo is typically imaginative, with upper-register bent notes emerging like rays of light from tangled phrases and twanging low-end notes. No Blues Riffs 101 here: Ashton maintains an improbably high level of creativity.

The minor-key love song “When You’re Alone” opens with a Univibed tone, moving easily into a haunting, subdued frame that works off the West Side blues riff patented by Magic Sam in his songs “Easy Baby” and “All Your Love.”  The hushed, almost stately, verses make the guitar breaks stand out that much more. The middle solo opens quietly, with Ashton playing chunky phrases at low volume; he turns up for a hairier tone and a keener attack just before slipping back into another vocal verse. The watery, vibed guitar sound reappears as the music crescendos behind the vocal, and then–well, the outro solo is simply incredible. Ashton pulls tremolo picking, slides up and down the neck, rubbery bends, and more from his bag of tricks. All the while, the amplifier sounds as if it is melting down amid bomb bursts. It’s a harrowing performance.

A palpable energy runs through the EP. The sessions feel like they were cut live, and the unadorned trio format yields plenty of space for Ashton’s voice and the instruments, which have a remarkable presence. The drum kit sounds fantastic, with the snare and cymbals right there, and the guitar jumps from the speakers. Even in its most florid moments, Ashton’s guitar playing is never gratuitous. Instead, it plays an essential role in developing the mood of these well-crafted songs. Fistful Of Blues is a fine set.

TOM HYSLOP

Digital files for review were provided by the artist.

Independently Blue

1364-Cover

The Duke Robillard Band

with special guest Monster Mike Welch

Independently Blue

Stony Plain Records,  2013

http://dukerobillard.com/

http://www.stonyplainrecords.com/Web/artist.asp?id=418#1364

From his beginnings in Roomful of Blues through various incarnations as a bandleader­–never mind an unparalleled resume of projects as sideman or producer that would be enviable, even legendary, on its own–Duke Robillard has set and exceeded the highest standards of taste, tone, and style. It seems that Robillard has been on a hot (or, more accurately, a hotter) streak of late, with a jumping brace of blues albums in Stomp! The Blues Tonight and Low Down and Tore Up; a jazzy trio project, Wobble Walking; exciting production work for Sunny Crownover, Joe Louis Walker, and others; and an upcoming tour as part of Bob Dylan’s band.

His latest album extends that run of successes. Augmenting his rhythm section (Bruce Bears, keyboards; Brad Hallen, bass; Mark Teixeira, drums–a trio that seems as telepathically linked as it is stylistically unlimited) is guest guitarist Monster Mike Welch, a fellow New Englander who regularly gigs as one of Sugar Ray Norcia’s Bluetones–that is, when he is not recording albums as a front man (I count five or six to date). Robillard maneuvers this superb and sympathetic cast through and around a dizzying scope of blues, jazz, and roots music on Independently Blue.

The album opens with two of three compositions penned by Robillard’s former Roomful bandmate, Al Basile. “I Wouldn’t-a Done That” is a swaggering shuffle with a pair of snarling, tangled-in-barbed-wire solos. Believe it or not, the tune modulates into different keys at least twice, an exceedingly rare move in the blues that makes for a very cool and compelling structure. “Below Zero” is a bluesy, moderately paced rocker that rides out on a duel between Duke’s bright single-note lines and Monster Mike’s bassy, fuzzed-out licks.

This friendly competition continues in the next track, Welch’s hard-hitting instrumental “Stapled To The Chicken’s Back,’” a Texas-flavored shuffle that arrives loaded with impressive guitar breaks. Chicken-picked single notes and double-stops practically pop out of the speaker during Duke’s solo, which slips easily between blues, country, and jazz feels. Welch’s darker-toned choruses are slinkier and recall the no-prisoners attack and idiosyncratic phrasing of Albert Collins. Duke picks up on this biting approach and returns it during the thrilling back-and-forth exchange that follows the individual solos.

A bouncing roots-rocker, “Laurene” expresses Duke’s devotion to Mrs Robillard, and sports a pair of distinctive rhythm guitar approaches as well as two wickedly pointed, Chuck Berry-inspired solos. It sounds like Howlin’ Wolf’s “Evil” provided the inspiration for the arrangement behind Basile’s “I’m Still Laughing.” The trebly lead guitar part is laden with a menacingly heavy vibrato. Welch’s “This Man, This Monster” begins as a laid-back, jazzy after-hours stroll, which escalates as more pointed, bluesier tones and lines overshadow the mellow mood, then develops a languid, almost Hawaiian feel: What an incredible ride in five minutes’ time!

Several sides of the extended range of Robillard’s imagination are on display. “Groovin’ Slow” rides a Southern soul groove reminiscent of “Ode To Billie Joe.” The relaxed but deeply funky middle solo seems perfect for this sort of Muscle Shoals feel, as do the jazzier leads in the outro. “You Won’t Ever” is a different kind of animal, opening with a Latin-inflected trumpet line over a minor key lope before moving into something I think of as Love Boat soul: a little like an arrangement from Willie Mitchell’s Royal studio in Memphis, with pop accents in the vocal melody, and a fleet, George Benson-esque guitar ride out.

The band reaches back to the 1920s with a cover of Red Allen’s “Patrol Wagon.” Doug Woolverton’s trumpet and Billy Novick’s clarinet snake around each other, evoking the feel of vintage jazz records, while Welch waits until the song’s end to uncoil an extended solo that’s mellow but swinging, and oh-so-finely syncopated. Robillard’s bluesy yet unique “Moongate” serves as the album’s centerpiece, midway through the program. A hip arrangement and canny production ideas, like balancing one tremoloed guitar against another, far-off and heavily reverbed–and layering others atop that instrumental bed–lend an ethereal, evocative air, in keeping with its lyric about a Chinese garden, to the track, which would seem out of place either leading off or closing the album, yet is sublime where it sits.

Still, the heart of every Duke Robillard project is the blues, and here the best comes last, in “If This Is Love,” a hard-hitting number based loosely on Otis Rush’s “Right Place, Wrong Time.” Robillard’s lyric and singing are impressively strong, and Welch absolutely kills it with a stunning lead guitar part, marked by angular phrasing, cutting bends, and a disconcertingly aggressive attack. Go to the head of the class, son! It marks a fitting close to the latest Duke Robillard Band long-player. Savvy music fans have long recognized Duke Robillard as the go-to guy for inventive and pitch-perfect playing in virtually every blues-based style of American music, and Independently Blue demonstrates again his mastery as bandleader and producer, his excellence as a performer, and his stature as a visionary creator of American music.

 TOM HYSLOP

Review copy provided by Mark Pucci Media.