Tom Holland & The Shuffle Kings • No Fluff, Just The Stuff


Tom Holland & The Shuffle Kings

No Fluff, Just The Stuff

E Natchel Records, 2013

From the beginning of his 15+-year career, Tom Holland was among the most sought-after sidemen in Chicago, first joining John Primer’s band, then Eddy “The Chief” Clearwater’s. His experiences backing everyone from Robert Lockwood Jr. and Jody Williams to Son Seals and Jimmy Johnson rounded out an enviable apprenticeship program. Holland led his own band practically from the start, and while more than a decade has elapsed since the first Tom Holland & The Shuffle Kings CD was released, the southpaw guitarist has hardly been taking it easy. He played extensively behind Carey Bell and Hubert Sumlin, and has toured with James Cotton for almost 10 years now. Five years ago, he recorded an album of guitar-piano duets with Marty Sammon, and he has appeared on records by artists including Cotton, Mud Morganfield, and Alabama Mike.

Now he is back with a new long player of his own. Convening at Felix Reyes’s friendly House of Tone, a studio noted for producing warmly authentic sounds, the Shuffle Kings–Holland, Mike Scharf (bass), Tino Cortes (drums), and Big D (harmonica)–really delivered on these 10 original songs. The rhythm section has a solid feeling for the blues, and, in true Chicago fashion, the harp takes a central place in the mix, but Big D never overplays. Holland sings unaffectedly, and his guitar work is in the camp of understated perfection still practiced by contemporary players like Lurrie Bell and (more directly) Primer, whose slide and single-string styles Holland has absorbed thoroughly.

The opening track, “Waiting On The Other Shoe To Drop,” incorporates some unusual changes that lend it the flavor of the Darrell Nulisch-era Broadcasters, when Ronnie Earl led the toughest blues band on the planet. But in general, the material offers a survey of real deal Chicago blues. Some titles are direct from the vintage stylebook: “Shuffle King Boogie,” a brisk jump number in the tradition of Jimmy Rogers’s “Rock This House,” features guests Sammon and Primer. In the Muddy Waters-style slow blues, “Hurry Up & Wait,” Holland again echoes Rogers (with touches of Lockwood) and evokes Muddy’s slide, filtered through Primer; Big D lays down deep swoops and squalls. Perhaps evidence of the Cotton connection, the record’s title track is a raw, harmonica-heavy boogie along the lines of “Evans Shuffle” or “Juke,” with hints of Elmore James’s “Bobby’s Rock” in Holland’s low-register riffing.

Other songs edge stylistically closer to the present day. “Look Here Baby” is a rumba blues with more than average bounce to the ounce, due largely to Cortes’s enthusiastic drumming. Sammon turns in another terrific solo, and Holland constructs a remarkable rhythm figure of hip lines, cool chords, and perfect single-note bass parts. (His solo is dynamite, too.) The loose-jointed shuffle “More Things Change” comes straight out of the John Primer mold and, in fact, spotlights the master himself, executing many of his signature guitar moves. “Hey Pardner!” is an up-tempo instrumental, based on “Shake For Me,” that shows Holland learned more than a few tricks while backing up Hubert Sumlin. As he plays off of Big D, Holland steers his soloing in the latter half of the song into something more original.

“Long Road To Tomorrow”–churning, minor funk with a more contemporary Chicago feel–wouldn’t sound out of place on any record by Vance Kelly, Primer, or Willie Kent. In “Easiest Thing I’ll Ever Do,” a mid-tempo soul original, Holland plays an easygoing, melodic vocal line against a galloping rhythm. D’s harmonica capably fills the spaces that horns or keyboards might ordinarily take up. Exploring the opposite side of that lyric, Holland gives us “Hardest Part Of Loving You,” a devastating, slow minor blues. Marty Sammon’s piano is brilliantly Spann-like, and D lays it down heavy. Holland sings with real urgency, and, on guitar, alternates tremolo-picked passages with deliberate slow phrases of frightening intensity. With Otis Rush out of commission, it seems that far too few people play (or know how to play) this kind of thing right. Thank goodness Holland paid attention when he was hanging out with the late, great Magic Slim.

In tipping his ever-present cowboy hat to his influences, Tom Holland has cut an excellent album. No Fluff, Just The Stuff makes a strong case that Chicago blues (and I don’t mean the modern rock-and-funk hybrid that too often passes) remain vital and valid.


I bought this CD from the artist.

Paul Metsa & Willie Walker • Live on Highway 55

Metsa Walker FntCover

Paul Metsa & Willie Walker

Live on Highway 55

A well-respected singer and songwriter since the 1970s, the Minnesota-based Paul Metsa is a noted scholar, activist, promoter, statesman, and author, all in connection with his musical endeavors. Willie Walker is simply one of the best soul singers in the business, probably best known today to those outside the Twin Cities area for his recent work with the Butanes–three albums’ worth of very fine original soul and blues material by Curtis Obeda–and for the coveted handful of sides he recorded for Checker and Goldwax in the ’60s.

To my knowledge, despite Walker and Metsa’s long-term acquaintance and geographic proximity, Live on Highway 55 marks their first recording together. The duo proves to be a natural pairing, even though each artist is working a bit outside his comfort zone: Metsa stays completely off of the microphone, and plays a set that is slightly different from his usual folk and blues repertoire; and Walker, who (in spite of a few catalog items, like his vintage single of “Ticket to Ride” and a cover of The Eagles’ “I Can’t Tell You Why” on his first, eponymous long-player) generally favors soul music, stretches effortlessly into material like the Louis Armstrong standard “What a Wonderful World,” “House of the Rising Sun,” and a bluesy “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out” that relies less on the version by Bobby Womack than on Bessie Smith or Derek & The Dominos.

Walker’s voice has aged appealingly, developing a controlled raspiness–a frayed quality reminiscent of Eddie Hinton or Johnnie Taylor–more pronounced than it held in the “Wee” Willie Walker days, and gained in complexity and emotional resonance, while retaining all the suppleness and smooth glide of his idol Sam Cooke’s (his show-stopping interpretation of “A Change is Gonna Come” has to be heard). Metsa rises admirably to the task of evoking the well-known, sometimes quite complicated original versions of songs like “My Girl” or “Good Time Charlie’s Got The Blues.” Whether he is converting “I’d Rather Drink Muddy Water” into a minor groove à la “Help Me,” or adding a succinct blues guitar solo, sparkling with harmonics, to “Bring It On Home” (another Cooke classic), his accompaniment is adept, dynamic, and inventive. He has clearly internalized these songs to a rare degree; even without Walker’s amazing vocal, the depth of Metsa’s arrangement of “Blowin’ in the Wind” absolutely puts to shame the paint-by-numbers version released last year by an acclaimed, and usually terrific, guitarist who was a long-time member of Bob Dylan’s band.

The challenges Metsa and Walker offer each other notwithstanding, Live on Highway 55 is not as adventurous in its selection of material as, say, Bettye LaVette’s albums for the Anti- label, but it is just fine; those who swore they never again needed to hear “When a Man Loves a Woman” or “Ain’t No Sunshine” will be forced to eat their words. Nor is it perfect in every aspect–Walker sings the wrong words to Little Willie John’s “Fever” every time the chorus comes around, and I guess we’ll have to wait for a studio record to hear Metsa’s guitar sound its best (miked up, that is, instead of amplified through a pickup). But it represents far more than a souvenir for those who attended the live in-studio show in April 2013 that produced the disc. Live on Highway 55 documents a fruitful partnership and a beautiful session that rewards repeated listening.


I purchased this CD from the artist.

Ross Kleiner & the Thrill • You Don’t Move Me


Ross Kleiner & The Thrill

You Don’t Move Me



Making new music in old styles can be a treacherous undertaking. Some understand the form but lack the proper feeling, and produce anything from a hollow echo to a grotesque approximation of the real thing. Others are hypercorrect in every aspect, but so limit their scope that their music appeals only to a fanatical corps of listeners. (Note: some of my favorite music is just like this.) It is rare to find an artist who understands and respects vintage music, and breathes new life into it, without evoking smirks and snorts, or worse, from his fellow faithful. Enter Ross Kleiner & The Thrill, a band from Minneapolis, Minnesota that approaches rock ‘n’ roll music with a fan’s heart and an expert’s ear, and gets it entirely right.

At the core of The Thrill are Cornelius Watson (guitar) and Victor Span (drums), with Elmer Johnston (bass) and Paulie Cerra (saxophone). Providing additional texture are Jon Duncan (piano and organ), Chico Chavez (bongos and guiro), John Rausch (shakers and tambourine), and Gregory Jong (acoustic guitar). (Note: In the working band’s lineup, Kleiner plays acoustic guitar; Brad Collett replaces Johnston and Robert Russel. Cerra; the additional percussion and keys are omitted.) The blues-tinged, tasteful, and imaginative playing of Watson, a stone killer guitarist from Winnipeg, heats up the proceedings without overpowering them, and Cerra’s nervous, taut riffs flesh out the songs.

Kleiner is an exciting, enthusiastic, and refreshingly unmannered singer, and a capable songwriter. The 14 originals on You Don’t Move Me point up his range. The band revs its collective engine at the starting line with “Mighty Mighty Man,” a raw rocker featuring a tremendous riff, pounding drums, and ringing guitar solos.  Reminiscent of The Blasters at their best, this track shows, more than 55 years after “Be-Bop-A-Lula,” just how a nonsense lyric can still improve a chorus. “Go Mad,” a bluesy, stop-time shuffle with stinging guitar, evokes a similar feeling–of Johnny Burnette Trio via Blasters–a few cuts later.

The stripped-down rockabilly boogie “Sleepless Nights” accents Span’s drumming, Johnston’s doghouse bass, and Cerra’s sax before Watson’s guitar shatters the proceedings with Neanderthal force. On the title track, Kleiner warns off his unwanted ex-lover while Span lays down the prototypical hambone beat most often associated with Bo Diddley; the guitar suggests Dick Dale’s Middle Eastern-tinged surf sounds. “Love Machine” recalls the brutal, Diddley-esque R&B of the early Rolling Stones.

“Goodbye Lover,” a quirky tune with an 8-bar structure, melds sunny pop with a vaguely ska-inflected rhythm, yet retains the roots rock flavor of its fellow songs and would work alongside some of Johnny Burnette’s solo sides. “Stealing Kisses,” another up-tempo ’50s-style number cut from similar cloth, rocks harder. Kleiner delivers one of his most spirited vocals on the great jump blues “Clutchin’ Pearls”; breakdowns and a hip middle eight add dynamics and excitement. “Treat Me Right” is jazzy swing in a minor key, with eloquent, whammy-shimmered guitar solos worthy of Brian Setzer.

Kleiner has a real affinity for minor numbers and unexpected notes. “Without You” combines a loping, (spaghetti) Western groove à la “Ghost Riders in the Sky” with surfy guitar and a near-yodeled vocal, to an unexpectedly ominous effect. “The Thrill” features a steamed-window vocal amid Watson’s beautifully fat chording and snaking lines. The excellent “Only Wanna Be With You” blends Latin rhythms and percussion with exotic guitar figures. “Rocksteady” struts coolly and has an almost anthemic quality, in spite of its minor key signature. “I’m Ready,” a laid-back rocker, incorporates touches of surf and rockabilly and a rather tongue-in-cheek, lounge lizard attitude. It is irresistible.

Apart from making a superb album–I daresay it delivers every bit of its promised Thrill–Kleiner’s success is that he absolutely conveys the essence of roots rock, without being overly beholden to any particular stylistic aspect of it. Hence You Don’t Move Me holds tremendous appeal for all lovers of rock ‘n’ roll. Casual fans of Elvis or any of Brian Setzer’s projects, scene-making devotees of The Paladins or Robert Gordon, and obsessively indefatigable rockabilly collectors will all dig Ross Kleiner and The Thrill.


Thanks to the artist for providing the CD for this review.