Cyril Neville • Magic Honey

cyril neville

Cyril Neville

Magic Honey

Ruf Records, 2013

http://www.rufrecords.de

Cyril Neville became a household name (in hip households, anyway) as a member of The Meters and the youngest Neville Brother. More recently, the singer-percussionist has enjoyed popularity with Galactic and the all-star R&B/rock ensemble, Royal Southern Brotherhood. Neville’s latest solo album, Magic Honey, is naturally heavy on the sounds of his native New Orleans, with elements of rock, blues, and soul seasoning the funky roux.

The title track, a bluesy stomp outlined by Cranston Clements’s crisp guitars and the superbad tandem of Carl Dufrene (bass) and “Mean” Willie Green (whose daredevil drum fills on this song alone are worth the price of admission), splits the difference between Howlin’ Wolf and Junior Wells in full James Brown mode. (If the brash harmonica player is named, I apologize: I can’t find the credit.) The lyric, delivered with gusto by Neville, extends the sexually charged King Bee/Little Queen Bee metaphors popularized by Slim Harpo. “Blues Is The Truth,” an uptown blues ballad with a serpentine bass line and a dark undercurrent, is another bluesy highlight.

“Swamp Funk” updates creamy, ‘70s-style New Orleans syncopation, and features two of that city’s preeminent musical products: its composer Dr. John (organ) and Allen Toussaint (piano). “Funky butt is what they want,” indeed! “Another Man” brings back the funk, with Neville’s percussion and Toussaint’s piano suggesting Caribbean undertones and Clements’s guitar break developing a singing, Santana-esque tone.

But many of the album’s funky cuts have a hard, contemporary edge. Paul Butterfield’s “You Can Run But You Can’t Hide” gets an angular interpretation with another showy Clements solo, and Walter Trout’s sputtering guitar lead fits his “Running Water” like a glove. “Working Man,” with RSB bandmate Mike Zito on guitar, is rocked up so that it barely resembles Otis Rush’s original recording, yet retains its appeal through the wah, distortion, and flash. Zito also guests on “Money And Oil,” a simple, riff-based song predicated on an insistently pounding bass line and the guitars’ funky scratch and whining slide.

Other songs step outside the Magic Honey formula with varying degrees of success. Where Eugene Gales’s Zeppelin-esque “Something’s Got A Hold On Me,” a slow, heavy blues rocker, seems out of place, the slightly faster “Still Going Down Today” is softened agreeably by a slinkier groove, dramatic chorus, and soulful touches. Warren Haynes’s “Invisible” is excellent, sparse deep funk, pointing up the interplay between Norman Caesar’s organ and the rhythm section. And “Slow Motion” not only captures a sunny island mood, it is keenly aware that melodic American soul music was a dominant influence on Jamaican ska and reggae. It is a fitting closer to a strong, wide-ranging record from Cyril Neville, one of the funkiest humans on the planet, and a son of America’s most musically cosmopolitan city.

TOM HYSLOP

I received this CD for review from Mark Pucci Media.

Hank Mowery • Account To Me

account to me

Hank Mowery

Account To Me

Old Pal, 2013

http://www.hankmowery.com/

The Michigan-based harmonica player and singer Hank Mowery is no newcomer, having fronted his own band The Hawktones and toured with Mike Morgan & The Crawl during the 1990s. But it was not until last year that he would record his first solo project. While Account To Me is intended in large part as a tribute to the greatly missed Gary Primich, by featuring five of his songs, including two previously unrecorded, it will also function for many as an introduction to Mowery’s estimable skills as a performer and bandleader.

The Primich songs alone offer a broad and varied stylistic palette. Perhaps the most straightforward of these, musically, is “My Home,” a hard, Texas shuffle driven by John Large’s relaxed yet insistent drumming. The liltingly melodic “Tricky Game” is clever without being precious, weaving references to Einstein and calculus into a romantic lyric. The groove and Chris Corey’s steel-drum-inspired piano suggest a lost Professor Longhair number. The uptempo cut “Put The Hammer Down,” with its creative and strong unamplified harmonica solo, is built up from the wild guitar figure Troy Amaro plays, one that could have been lifted from the Junior Watson playbook. Mowery’s smooth vocal and Amaro’s solo in “Pray For A Cloudy Day” have enough sophistication to move this Primich number into the urbane, jazzy territory of an artist like Lynwood Slim. Finally, the title song is a sweetly hushed, R&B ballad  that could have come from Chuck Willis or even Buddy Holly. Bassist Patrick Recob contributes acoustic guitar, Mowery blows plaintive harmonica, and Amaro softens his tremolo-washed electric guitar lines further with whammy-bar shimmer.

The balance of the set widens the scope considerably. Rev. Robert Wilkins’s “That Ain’t No Way To Get Along,” familiar through his own recording and the Rolling Stones’ adaptation “Prodigal Son,” goes back to the prewar years. In keeping with its country blues origins, it is performed in a duo setting, with Mowery accompanying the National resonator guitar of singer Jimmie Stagger. Interplay between Mowery’s harmonica and Corey’s wonderfully cheesy, Space Age-toned B3 highlights the rocking R&B/Latin-flavored instrumental “Banana Oil,” originally by Memphis Slim. Mowery contributes the deep and lowdown “If I Knew What I Know,” a slow blues drawn directly from the Muddy Waters well, and sparked by fine ensemble playing and fat amplified harp. “Spend A Little Time,” a Mowery/Recob collaboration, opens with a drum fill quoting “Keep A Knockin’” (and “Rock And Roll”) before veering off into another direction, developing into a Gulf Coast rocker worthy of The Fabulous Thunderbirds or Primich, arranged to lean heavily on the hard-working rhythm section, acoustic piano, and a funky, fuzz-toned Wurlitzer that fills the guitar’s spot in the mix. Recob sings his own composition “Target,” a haunting blues lope in a minor key that evokes a dream jam session between Little Walter and Grant Green.

The musicians and producer-engineer Tommy Schichtel clearly paid close attention to making and capturing incredible sounds: tones this good don’t happen by accident. Mowery and crew play expressively and with subtlety, never pressing. That unforced feel extends to the arrangements; the songs seem to go where artistry and imagination, rather than any particular stylistic preconception, have led them. Finally, Tad Robinson’s perceptive liner notes articulate the record’s origins and achievement with intelligence and grace. Account To Me, a beautiful and remarkable work, is bound to make a lasting impression.
TOM HYSLOP

I received the review copy of this CD from Mark Pucci Media.

Top Ten of 2013…Plus

Ordinarily I resist making Best Of lists, except mentally, in part because I don’t view music as a competition, and in part because my choices undergo frequent change. But when David Mac asked me to contribute a Top Ten to his Blues Junction site, I gave it my best shot. My choices and those of a number of other listeners were revealed here:

http://bluesjunctionproductions.com/daves_top_ten_list_of_top_ten_lists

The ten CDs I listed as my favorites of the year:

1)    Magic Sam – Live at the Avant Garde, June 22, 1968 (Delmark)

2)    Holland K. Smith – Cobalt (Ellersoul)

3)    Ari Borger & Igor Prado -Lowdown Boogie (Chico Blues)

4)    Nikki Hill – Here’s Nikki Hill (Deep Fried Records)

5)    John Primer & Bob Corritore – Knockin’ Around These Blues (Delta Groove Productions)

6)    Trickbag – Trickbag with Friends Vol. 1 (Magic)

7)    4 Jacks – Deal With It (Ellersoul)

8)    Lou Pride – Ain’t No Love in This House (Severn)

9)    Barrelhouse Chuck & Kim Wilson – Driftin’ From Town to Town (The Sirens)

10)   Finis Tasby / Kid Andersen – Snap Your Fingers (Bluebeat Music)

In making the list, I initially wrote down the first group of CDs that came to mind. There were more than 10. Forced to make cuts, I reluctantly omitted the next group–but any of them could have been in my top 10. Here, then, are the rest of my favorites of 2013, in no particular order…

Lurrie Bell, Blues in My Soul (Delmark)

Laura Rain & the Caesars, Electrified (LRC)

The James Hunter Six, Minute By Minute (Fantasy)

Candye Kane with Laura Chavez, Coming Out Swingin’ (Vizztone)

Adrianna Marie & Her Groovecutters, Double Crossing Blues

Sugaray Rayford, Dangerous (Delta Groove Productions)

Birdlegg, Birdlegg (Dialtone)

Don Leady, Hillbilly Boogie Surfin’ Blues

Gene Taylor, Roadhouse Memories (Bluelight Records)

Jake LaBotz, Get Right (Charnel House)

Tinsley Ellis, Get It! (Heartfixer)

What a great year for blues, soul, and real rock ‘n’ roll music!

Remembering Little Walter

Remembering LIttle Walter

Billy Boy Arnold, Charlie Musselwhite, Mark Hummel, Sugar Ray Norcia, James Harman

Remembering Little Walter

Blind Pig Records, 2013

http://www.blindpigrecords.com/

Latter-day harp men talk about Big Walter’s tone, emulate the conversational styles of both Sonny Boys, admire the power and playfulness of Cotton, and dig Junior Wells’s attitude. Some may work on Jimmy Reed’s high-end approach, or give lip service to Snooky Pryor or Louis Myers. But Marion Walter Jacobs was The Man, the player whose stylistic innovations revolutionized the way the instrument was played, and whose technique, taste, and tones continue to baffle and inspire musicians more than 60 years after his debut, and nearly 45 after his untimely death. Little Walter’s influence is so pervasive, therefore, that a certain amount of sarcasm seems almost a requirement when confronting a blues harp CD named Remembering Little Walter. What are the odds? At some level, after all, nearly every record prominently featuring harmonica blues could bear that title.

Built entirely from Walter’s catalog, many of the songs on this album have been recorded countless times already (and chances are that, if you are like I am, you do not care if you never again hear “My Babe,” though you undoubtedly still thrill to “Can’t Hold Out Much Longer”). What, then, distinguishes this release? Enough that it is nominated for two Blues Music Awards, in the Album and Traditional Blues Album categories. After years of organizing his Blues Harmonica Blowout tours, producer Mark Hummel has some practice at assembling successful packages, practice that carried over to this show, recorded at Anthology in San Diego. Start with the band. The superb rhythm section is made up of June Core (drums) and RW Grigsby (bass). The guitarists are well experienced at working with harmonica players: Nathan James (with James Harman and Ben Hernandez) and the legendary Little Charlie Baty (with Rick Estrin, in the Nightcats). The unit interprets the sounds originally laid down on Checker by the Aces and Robert Lockwood & Luther Tucker with swing, subtlety, and deep understanding.

The singers/harmonica players under whose names Remembering Little Walter was issued are an enviable all-star assemblage: Hummel, Harman, Charlie Musselwhite, Billy Boy Arnold, and Sugar Ray Norcia. Together they represent something like 50% of any reasonable person’s list of pre-eminent living harmonica instrumentalists, and the environment, as one might expect, makes for committed and spirited performances. Sugar Ray’s intense “Mean Old World” is dynamite, as is Musselwhite’s take on the uptempo “One Of These Mornings,” a relative rarity, which also features a daredevil guitar break. Tone and dynamics are at an impossibly high level throughout–Hummel and the band dial in a perfect late-night mood on “Blue Light,” and the way Harman drives “Crazy Mixed Up World” hard before breaking it down to a whisper at the end is masterly. Billy Boy’s “Can’t Hold Out Much Longer” is splendid on every level.

Although that recap covers only about half of the program, be assured that the rest of the songs (each performer sings two) are excellent as well. The closing number, “My Babe,” features all five marquee players (not to mention Baty, who started on harmonica before becoming universally recognized as a genius guitarist) blowing inspired solos on their horns. Chances are that you have already made the decision to buy Remembering Little Walter. You will not regret it.

TOM HYSLOP

I received the review copy of this CD from the label.

Macy Blackman & The Mighty Fines • I Didn’t Want To Do It

Macy Blackman

Macy Blackman & The Mighty Fines

I Didn’t Want To Do It

MamaRu Records, 2013

http://www.macyblackman.com/

The pianist Macy Blackman, a longtime music educator and piano expert, has been an active performer since the 1960s, specializing in jazz and rhythm and blues, and in particular the R&B music of New Orleans. He has just released his third album with his band The Mighty Fines. The 14 tracks on I Didn’t Want To Do It supply everything necessary for a rollicking good time except the partygoers.

The rock-solid Mighty Fines are Jack Dorsey or Adam Goodhue (drums), Bing Nathan (bass), Ken Jacobs (baritone saxophone–delicious!), and Nancy Wright (tenor saxophone, vocals), supporting Blackman (piano), whose singing is excellent and interesting. In contrast to the Mighty Fines’ lively and infectious music, Blackman’s vocal style is pretty far from excitable–not deliberate, exactly; languid perhaps comes closer. Although I have no sense that Blackman is trying to imitate the great Professor Longhair, and any similarity lies more in feeling and attitude than in sonic resemblance, his resonant timbre and playful, yet somehow grave quality do recall Fess. That is no small asset for anyone singing Crescent City music.

The playlist includes standards and obscurities alike, reflecting Blackman’s long history and close involvement with this repertoire. The latter category includes the woozy rocker “Help Yourself,” credited to Allen Toussaint, and “The Good Book,” a brooding, gospel-inflected number in a minor key. Blackman sings the standard “What Do I Tell My Heart” beautifully, his 12/8 piano figure reflecting Fats Domino’s version; the saxophone charts are sublime. Blackman’s friend Dr. John penned the lovely ballad “Just The Same” and, with Doc Pomus, the sly, bouncing “Never Fool Nobody But Me.” More familiar are “Who Shot The La-La,” a classy take on Irma Thomas’s “Somebody Told You” with a solid Wright vocal, the title track–a romp from The Spiders’ catalog with a chorus and a descending hook that you’ll recognize at once if you have ever heard it–and Chris Kenner’s immortal “I Like It Like That,” one of those songs that seems to encapsulate everything about New Orleans music: rippling piano, soul-clap snare hits, honking saxophones, Afro-Caribbean flavor, stop-time rhythms, an instantly memorable melody and lyric.

Blackman draws from other sources as well. The deep soul ballad “Dreams To Remember” is presented in an arrangement not far from Otis Redding’s original, with Blackman, playing the only guitar part on the album, filling Steve Cropper’s role. Blackman’s piano rhythms are quietly spectacular on a jaunty “Something’s Got A Hold On Me.” Wright sings lead on that Etta James classic and on Ike and Tina Turner’s “A Fool In Love,” which is enhanced by a tough sax solo and such delightful touches as the bold fill by Dorsey at 2:31. The Brook Benton-Dinah Washington duet “Rockin’ Good Way,” shorn of strings and its politely rocking, straight-eighth-note rhythm, is recast as a syncopated, shuffling New Orleans strut, and Jackie Wilson’s immortal “Higher And Higher” closes the program on a high note, sounding very much like a one-pass (and maybe one microphone) take that builds on Blackman’s block-chorded introduction, with rowdy hand claps, uninhibited drumming, and wild saxophones creating an irresistible, pure party atmosphere.

That sense of fun is at the heart of what most of us think of when it comes to the R&B of New Orleans, and Macy Blackman & The Mighty Fines convey it perfectly. I Didn’t Want To Do It goes further, showing rarer aspects of New Orleans’s music: Saturday night and Sunday morning, romance and heartbreak, high seriousness and low clowning, all skillfully played and sung.

TOM HYSLOP

I received the review copy of this CD from Blackman’s publicist, PR by DR.

The Nick Moss Band • Time Ain’t Free: Preview

Nick Moss Band

The Nick Moss Band

Time Ain’t Free

Blue Bella Records, 2014

http://www.nickmoss.com/

http://www.bluebellarecords.com/

I saw the Nick Moss Band perform twice in 2013 and was left with an extremely favorable impression. Even so, I was unprepared for what I heard when Nick asked me to listen to the band’s upcoming record, due in March. Killer piano and organ sounds balance excellent, varied guitar tones, all riding atop a powerful, nuanced rhythm section. Nick’s husky vocals are matched by those of the new band member, Michael Ledbetter, an exceptional soul and blues (and, I understand, opera) singer, making a potent one-two combination.

Time Ain’t Free finds an inspired Nick Moss extending his creative streak, offering an intelligent, updated take on ‘70s rock and R&B, marked by daring arrangements and surprising juxtapositions. Blending elements of Parliament, the Allman Brothers, Stevie Wonder, Faces, even Afrobeat, and at times evoking an Ike Turner-Little Feat summit, the set encompasses Muscle Shoals sweetness, stormy postmodern boogie, greasy roadhouse R&B, soul-tinged rock, and gospel-inflected ballads, all filtered through Moss’s deep-blue lens, rocking hard yet stone funky.

Look for Time Ain’t Free to be one of 2014’s more interesting releases – complex and challenging, but tuneful and completely accessible.