It Wasn’t Real

gina

Gina Sicilia

It Wasn’t Real

Swingnation Records/Vizztone, 20413

www.ginasicilia.com

www.vizztone.com

Not yet 30 years old, Gina Sicilia has already been nominated for a Blues Music Award. She has received excellent notices for the three CDs she has recorded with multi-instrumentalist and producer Dave Gross, on which the Pennsylvania singer has explored various shades of American music, with a focus on blues and soul. Her just-released fourth album shows Sicilia to be a mature artist who is determined to push in interesting directions.

It Wasn’t Real marks Sicilia’s first venture recording outside of Gross’s Fat Rabbit Studios. This time, she works with Grammy-winning producer Glenn Barratt and a group of session aces from the Philadelphia area. Erik Johnson on drums, and Scot Hornick, whose fat-toned acoustic and electric bass style lends a tuba-like bottom end to the songs, form the ear-catching rhythm section on all tracks. Key contributors to the instrumental textures include Jay Davidson (saxophones), Joel Bryant (piano, Hammond and Wurlitzer organs, Fender Rhodes), and Kevin Hanson, Ross Bellenoit, and Jef Lee Johnson (guitars).

In a what might be considered a daring move on Sicilia’s part, there’s not a 12-bar progression to be heard among the nine songs she wrote for It Wasn’t Real, and only the disc’s lone cover, the sultry, swaggering “Don’t Cry Baby,” from the catalog of Etta James, qualifies as pure, tough R&B. Piano and tenor sax work hard in this deceptively quiet arrangement, but not as hard as Sicilia, who expresses a spectrum of intensity, here caressing a line, there blistering one. The singer of the poignant “Don’t Wanna Be No Mother” looks back on her dreams, realizing too late that life has delivered her elsewhere and made them impossible. A hall-of-mirrors story of betrayal and love that illustrates the inscrutability of chance, “Walkin’ Along The Avenue,” a jazzy strut in a minor key, takes on a continental patina through Dennis Gruenling’s exotic, Gallic harmonica lines. The title track, a tale of deception and heartbreak, is no less affecting for the relative simplicity of its storyline: set to a moody, noirish grind that evokes wet pavement and deep shadows, it lays bare the narrator’s anguish via snapshots from the doomed relationship.

Other, brighter tonalities provide relief. The music behind “Wake Up Next To You” underscores the dreamy lyric with touches of reggae, a hint of the Band in the chord changes, and a melodic guitar break. “City By The Water” is a light R&B ballad, stocked with warm, nostalgic images. “Please Don’t Stop” combines a second-line feel straight out of New Orleans with an irresistible vocal line. A brilliant arrangement, highlighted by Sicilia and Barratt’s backing vocals, Bryant’s keys, and Mike Brenner’s out-of-left-field lap steel, makes “Oh Me, Oh My” a pure pop success that recalls “Dream A Little Dream Of Me” or the Lovin’ Spoonful’s “What A Day For A Daydream.” “Walkin’ Shoes,” a perky country shuffle marked by tic-tac bass and dueling electric guitars, is worlds better than the pap oozing out of Nashville these days. Sicilia splits the difference in styles on the laid back “Write A Little Song With You,” genre-perfect country soul with a lovely pop sheen–a truly standout track.

With great emotional and dynamic range, and a wonderfully smoky voice, Gina Sicilia is a premier singer. Her accomplished songwriting–lyrical, narrative, and introspective by turns–continues to evolve. It Wasn’t Real, its country and pop inflections, bluesy soundscapes, and slow-burn ballads all unified by creative arrangements and soulful vocals, will hold strong appeal for fans of American music.

TOM HYSLOP

Review copy provided by the artist.

Strong

Strong

Billy Price

Strong

DixieFrog, 2013

http://billyprice.com/

www.bluesweb.com/

Billy Price should be considered a national treasure for keeping his brand of soul music alive and relevant, far beyond his home base of Pittsburgh. He has been singing professionally since the early 1970s, first with Roy Buchanan, and later with the Rhythm Kings and the Keystone Rhythm Band. Following an excellent pair of albums in which the French guitarist Fred Chapellier shared the marquee, Price has just released a new CD with his name alone at the top of the bill, in collaboration with his longtime support unit, the Billy Price Band, with some very special guests. Strong doesn’t begin to describe it.

Chapellier co-composed three tracks. “Can’t Leave It Alone” is a hard-driving number from the intersection of blues and R&B, in the manner of early-‘60s sides by Junior Wells or Willie Cobbs. The Nighthawks’ Mark Wenner blows tough harmonica and trades phrases with guitarist Steve Delach during the middle instrumental section. “Sweet Soul Music” lives up to its name with a breezy, lilting feel closer to Tyrone Davis’s immortal Brunswick sides than to the frenetic Arthur Conley classic that shares the title. Price’s testifying rides atop a bouncing groove; perfectly charted horns and Chapellier’s melodic, yet biting, guitar solo make this a standout. “Let’s Go For A Ride,” arranged with a terrific second-line beat, a rowdy horn chart, and Professor Longhair-inspired piano from Jimmy Britton, is pure New Orleans.

Britton is Price’s writing partner on the other originals. “Gotta Be Strong,” another sweet-sounding tune, is given weight by dramatic horn swells and a lyric, firmly delivered, that insists on perseverance and optimism. The horn section opens “Diggin’ A Hole” with the sultry swagger of a ’70s Hi Records hit before the arrangement tilts toward a funky, roadhouse blend of styles. The elegant ballad “The Lucky One” is another co-write with Britton, who builds a majestic piano chord progression. Tenor saxophonist Eric DeFade adds crucial fills and a spot-on solo, and Price’s vocal is outstanding, now and again slipping into falsetto to accentuate the deep emotion. Price and the band turn on a love light with “I’ve Got Love On My Mind,” the explosive, gospel-inflected track that closes the set.

Three covers round out the album. A fine “Driving Wheel,” funkified with clavinet and organ, and beefed up with heavy-riffing horns, shows where a tight soul outfit can take the blues. Bobby Byrd’s “Never Get Enough” is an absolute, super bad blast, with Bob Matchett (trombone) stepping forward in the Fred Wesley role, and Price, urged on by the interjections of the Nighthawks’ drummer Mark Stutso–appearing here as James Brown–displaying unbridled enthusiasm. A sublime reading of Little Johnny Taylor’s immortal slow blues “Part Time Love” finds Price singing with great force and feeling. He has to, in order to stand up to the jagged, intense guitar of guest Monster Mike Welch.

The Billy Price Band today sounds better than ever, playing with soul, maturity, and taste. Gone are the rock inflections heard on previous outings: Delach here never overstates his case, not even when soloing. Economical, punchy, and present, his playing on Strong marks a modern gloss on the spirit and feel of the genre’s defining stylists–players like Cropper, Johnson, Womack, and Hinton. And Price is at his peak. Although perhaps not blessed with the incredible instrument of his avowed favorite, O.V. Wright, Price has great technique and enthusiasm, and his voice has enough of that frayed quality so essential for soul singers; unerring instincts make him a most effective communicator.  The pitch-perfect Strong ranks among Price’s finest achievements, and ought to be remembered when year-end best lists are made.

TOM HYSLOP

Review copy provided by the artist.

Lorenzo Menzerschmidt

lorenzomenzerschmidt

Lorenzo Menzerschmidt

self release, 2012

www.facebook.com/lorenzomenzerschmidt

http://lorenzomenzerschmidt.weebly.com/index.html

Blues is bound enough by tradition that it’s worth celebrating new spins on the style. The trio Lorenzo Menzerschmidt, therefore, commands our attention and ear.  LM is a collaboration between veteran musicians Victor DeLorenzo, best known as drummer for Violent Femmes; the well-traveled bassist Tony Menzer, whose rèsume includes work with Clyde Stubblefield, Perry Weber & The Devilles, the Westside Andy/Mel Ford Band, and the W.C. Clark Midwest Blues Review; and the singer-songwriter Lost Jim Ohlschmidt, a Twin Cities-based acoustic guitar ace who shares Wisconsin roots with his bandmates. Together, the three produce a fresh take on roots styles.

Ohlschmidt has recorded four albums of Mississippi John Hurt songs like “Payday,” where DeLorenzo’s toms and Menzer’s doghouse bass create a low-register rumble, making an uneasy backdrop in contrast with the relaxed feel of the guitar and vocal. The band revs up Sleepy John Estes’s “The Girl I Love” with a rough-and-tumble groove straight out of “Walking Blues,” topped by Ohlschmidt’s raw slide guitar, and gives Blind Blake’s classic “Police Dog Blues” a jaunty strut. A resonator guitar’s driving rhythm paces the track, and several pithy solos, including the harmonics that were so startling on Blake’s original, offer a measure of controlled chaos. None of this material is any less impressive for being pretty standard fare, at least for Ohlschmidt.

LM’s cover of Bob Dylan’s shuffle “It Takes A Lot To Laugh, It Takes A Train To Cry” is also played straightforwardly, with delicate slide guitar figures accenting the chords, and subtle brushwork and bass patterns backing it all. More adventurous is “Johnny B. Goode,” here transmuted into a minor shuffle with a descending bass line (for a reference, think of “Stray Cat Strut”)–haunting, with a hint of gypsy jazz–and given a hangdog vocal. That’s a surprising choice of arrangements for one of the most iconic American songs (and one you can bet has never been tried before), but it works. Prior to the fade, Ohlschmidt quotes both Percy Mayfield via Ray Charles (“Hit The Road, Jack”) and Tennessee Ernie Ford (“Sixteen Tons”), intensifying the sense of vertigo. It’s very cool stuff.

Songs from Ohlschmidt’s pen comprise the remainder of the program. They span a range of moods. On the lighter side, there’s the roots-rocking “Check The Gauge,” which cruises on a tank full of Menzer’s bouncing bass line. Ohlschmidt packs the rocking, country-fried “29’s A Good Road” with Wisconsin landmarks, and makes the narrator of the very funny opener, “I’m A Mess,” a hopeful, lovable loser. Both are topped off with crisp, twanging electric guitar. On the other side of the spectrum, Ohlschmidt is also a master of somber, minor key songs. “It Don’t Work That Way,” its tempo, melody, and backing vocals highly reminiscent of some lost, mid-’60s pop number, provides cutting insights into human nature. The unrelentingly downcast lyric in “Shades Of Blue” is matched by a spare, jazz-tinged arrangement that is broken, at least musically, by highly Dylanesque choruses. Finally, desperately slow pacing and a hopeless lyric (not to mention a “Funeral March” quotation) in the grim blues “Since My Baby Left This Town” suggest that the singer be put on suicide watch. Ohlschmidt is a profound poet of the pathetic.

So Lorenzo Menzerschmidt offers convincing evidence that artists can thrive in settings very different from those they are accustomed to, and produce music that both grips and entertains. By reworking familiar materials in unexpected ways, the band’s self-titled debut album proves that there is plenty of life–and originality–yet to be found in roots music.

TOM HYSLOP

Review copy provided by the artist.

Let It Slide

koch

Sterling Koch

Let It Slide

Full Force Music, 2013

 

www.sterlingkoch.com

 

In the almost ten years since a neck injury made it impossible for him to play guitar in the customary manner, the Pennsylvania-based guitarist Sterling Koch has become a proficient, assured slide guitarist. Koch plays exclusively in the lap steel style. Despite his friendship and association with several of the Sacred Steel school of players from the COGIC tradition, including Calvin Cooke, Aubrey Ghent, and Darick Campbell, Koch’s playing is staunchly in the style of blues rockers like Rory Gallagher and George Thorogood. His recently released fifth album, Let It Slide, delivers 13 solid blues rock songs.

For all its rock feel, Slide remains centered in blues. The mid-tempo shuffle “Too Sorry,” a Doyle Bramhall composition, features a solo that begins with variations on a rhythmic pattern before easing into Duane Allman-like high register playing. A second solo is just as effective. Koch turns up the heat on “Wrong Side Of The Blues,” an uptempo box shuffle, when he steps on a wah pedal during his stormy solo, and on his cover of Rick Vito’s “My Baby’s Hot,” where he supercharges Elmore’s trademark “Dust My Broom” licks and shows a playful side in fills that whip up the neck of the guitar. The cover of “It Hurts Me Too” may be leagues away from Tampa Red or Elmore James, but is well within bluesy territory. Koch’s singing and playing here are notably strong.

Several boogie-style numbers are especially successful. A cover of Bramhall’s “Shape I’m In” opens the set with an insistent, redlining pulse. Chuck Berry’s old trick of mixing feels, in which the guitar plays straight time against a shuffle rhythm, is resurrected (here inverted, so that the guitar plays the shuffle feel while the rhythm section plays straight eighth notes) to excellent effect. Koch’s high-energy “I Wanna Be Your Driver” not only takes one of Berry’s favorite subjects (the automobile) as his central metaphor, but proves that his patented “Johnny B. Goode” moves can be replicated by a slide guitarist. Koch updates K.C. Douglas’s Oakland blues classic “Mercury Boogie,” adopting the “Let’s Work Together” groove pioneered in the later “Mercury Blues” version of the song by Steve Miller. The figure Koch repeats as an instrumental hook is downright primitive–and irresistibly appealing.

On the subtler side, the slow, bluesy “I Only Want To Be With You” sports a cool chromatic figure and a keen dynamic sensibility, building in drama before a well-constructed guitar solo. Not the Doc Pomus-penned Ray Charles number, Koch’s “Lonely Avenue,” a moody instrumental with a lyrical edge reminiscent perhaps of Fleetwood Mac during the Green-Kirwan-Spencer era, is among the most powerful pieces on the album.

Koch recorded Slide with his working rhythm section of Gene Babula (bass) and John Goba (drums). While the tandem is never very loose, and doesn’t swing much, I have to say I don’t miss that flavor in this context. The reliable, keep-it-simple approach works perfectly, and although the feel is pretty firmly in the rock camp, it is never overbearing, nor is it tiresome to listen to. Koch’s vocals are a bit flat in affect, but competent, capable, and never mannered (a big plus in my book). And he can play guitar, beyond any question, but avoids pyrotechnics: his tones, leads, and rhythm parts never get much heavier than Billy Gibbons’s. Restraint of this sort is too rare among blues rockers, and much appreciated here. Let It Slide will surely be welcomed by those with a taste for the music of Johnny Winter or early ZZ Top.

 

TOM HYSLOP

 

Review copy provided by Frank Roszak Radio Promotions.

Deal With It

4Jacks

4 Jacks

Deal With It

EllerSoul Records, 2013

http://ellersoul.com/

As an institution, the supergroup has an uneven history, particularly in terms of artistic success. When 4 Jacks formed, therefore, the band at once faced a challenge of sorts. The Washington, D.C.-based Big Joe Maher is here, singing and drumming as he does in his own band, the Dynaflows. Texan Anson Funderburgh, who led The Rockets for many years, is widely considered to be one of the most tasteful guitar stylists and tone kings working in blues. The Nashville keyboard ace Kevin McKendree, who has worked with both Maher’s Dynaflows and Funderburgh’s Rockets, is perhaps best known as a member of Delbert McClinton’s band and has also recorded and toured with Brian Setzer; among his many credits are projects with Lee Roy Parnell, Tinsley Ellis, Robert Ward, Tad Robinson, Seth Walker, and Watermelon Slim. Steve Mackey, another session veteran and McClinton band member, holds down the electric bass chair.

Obviously the 4 Jacks bring with them a history of high standards. Deal With It more than lives up to expectations. The jumping little number “Have Ourselves A Time” swings hard, with Maher smoothly delivering a good-time invitation and Funderburgh combining cunningly bent notes and clipped phrases. “She Ain’t Worth A Dime,” a rowdy shuffle very much in the style of J.B. Lenoir’s “Mama Talk To Your Daughter,” features a rippling piano solo and an enthusiastic vocal. The wry “Bobcat Woman” describes a certain type of disagreeable lover who will be familiar to any regular blues listener. Featuring McKendree on organ, this Texas shuffle will be a tonic for Rockets fans waiting for Funderburgh to uncoil his patented, stinging leads. Maher’s fast “Thunder And Lightning,” working off of the framework of “Feel So Bad,” is another showcase for Funderburgh’s staccato lines.

The stark, Latin-tinged “Love’s Like That,” a minor key piece, hinges on Mackey’s bass guitar figure and Maher’s tom-tom rolls. McKendree’s chords and single-note rolls are impeccably timed; Funderburgh squeezes out perfect notes and phrases almost stingily; and the vocal is subdued, almost downcast. It is superb. The assuredly paced slow blues “Your Turn To Cry” is arranged with both piano and organ; chord substitutions give it a more sophisticated feel than Otis Rush’s familiar version. Another slow number, “Bad News Baby,” features beautiful interplay among the band members and a sublime guitar break.

The Jacks play it superbad and funky on the Percy Mayfield composition “I Don’t Want To Be President,” with wiry guitar and a friendly, very funny vocal performance. Maher’s spoken introduction and vocal on “Ansonmypants” are as playful and spirited as The Big Bopper’s on “Chantilly Lace.” Here McKendree solos on piano and dials in a roller-rink organ sound, while Funderburgh shifts into T-Bone Walker mode. Three instrumentals round out the program. “Texas Twister” combines blues and R&B in the fashion of Freddy King’s classic instrumentals, and is every bit as catchy; your mind’s eye may well see go-go dancers. The title track has more than a hint of King in its hook, but takes on a definite Stax flavor once McKendree solos, with the drawbars set to give the organ that unmistakable, slightly hollow tone so characteristic of Booker T. At the end of the playlist, “Painkiller” evokes The Meters’ funk with clever syncopation and a “Cissy Strut”-like design. Pieces like these present a case study in how four truly hip parts can interlock seamlessly, when great individual players are also great ensemble players. More importantly, they are downright fun to listen to. 4 Jacks sound like they are having an uncommonly good time making music–their feel is always right on target. An exciting survey of blues and R&B styles, Deal With It never comes close to striking a false note. Highly recommended.

TOM HYSLOP

Review copy provided by Frank Roszak Radio Promotions.

Best Blues of the Decade 2000-2009

I’m going to go back a few years for this post. The Feb/March 2010 issue of Blues Revue presented a list of the 25 best blues CDs of the previous decade, as determined by a poll of its journalists and other listeners of note. CDs released between 2000-2009 were eligible for consideration. I was one of those who contributed input. To illustrate where my tastes lie, I’m going to reproduce the final list, and then divulge my own selections.

 The consensus list:

25 KENNY WAYNE SHEPHERD • 10 Days On The Road

24 OTIS TAYLOR • Recapturing The Banjo

23 THE MANNISH BOYS • Lowdown Feeling

22 MIGHTY MO RODGERS • Redneck Blues

21 JAMES BLOOD ULMER • Bad Blood In The City

20 HUBERT SUMLIN • About Them Shoes

19 WATERMELON SLIM • Watermelon Slim & The Workers

18 COREY HARRIS & HENRY BUTLER • Vu-Du Menz

17 TOMMY CASTRO • Pain Killer

16 NICK MOSS & THE FLIP TOPS • Play It Till Tomorrow

15 COREY HARRIS • Mississippi To Mali

14 MAVIS STAPLES • We’ll Never Turn Back

13 THE HOLMES BROTHERS • Simple Truths

12 BUDDY GUY • Skin Deep

11 LIL’ ED & THE BLUES IMPERIALS • Rattleshake

10 BOBBY RUSH • Raw

09 JOHN HAMMOND • Wicked Grin

08 IRMA THOMAS • After The Rain

07 NORTH MISSISSIPPI ALLSTARS • Electric Blue Watermelon

06 B.B. KING • One Kind Favor

05 KOKO TAYLOR • Old School

04 SOLOMON BURKE • Don’t Give Up On Me

03 OTIS TAYLOR • White African

02 R.L. BURNSIDE • Wish I Was In Heaven Sitting Down

01 BUDDY GUY • Sweet Tea

 …and my choices:

15 TAD ROBINSON • Did You Ever Wonder?

14 EDDIE C. CAMPBELL • Tear This World Up

13 CHARLES WILSON • If Heartaches Were Nickels

12 JOHN PRIMER • Knocking At Your Door

11 RICK HOLMSTROM • Hydraulic Groove

10 MAGIC SLIM & THE TEARDROPS • Snakebite

09 SVEN ZETTERBERG • Moving In The Right Direction

08 JOHNNY B MOORE • Rockin’ In The Same Old Boat

07 SEAN COSTELLO • Moanin’ For Molasses

06 SHAWN PITTMAN • Full Circle

05 JIMMIE VAUGHAN • Do You Get The Blues

04 KIRK FLETCHER • Shades Of Blue

03 WILLIE KENT • Comin’ Alive

02 NICK CURRAN • Player

01 LURRIE BELL • Cuttin’ Heads

You might notice that none of my selections appear on the official list. Indeed, I am told that only two of them received any other nominations(!). Apparently I am out of step…that has been the story of my life. But I make no apologies for my taste.

I would be interested in your thoughts on the contrast between the two lists. Please comment!