mr tom’s Top 25 of 2016: best blues

Because 10 just isn’t enough: My top 25 blues and near-blues (that is, old-school R&B/soul and roots rock and roll) albums of last year. I won’t rank them except to let you know that my favorite record of 2016 came out of Austin, TX, with a bunch of tremendous songs, fine singing and playing, and a sound 100% all its own:

the-13-14-cover-300x272

Greg Izor & The Box Kickers – The 13 14

The other 24, alphabetically:
Alabama Mike – Upset The Status Quo
Lurrie Bell – Can’t Shake This Feeling
Dylan Bishop – The Exciting Sounds of the Dylan Bishop Band
The Blue Shadows
John Blues Boyd – The Real Deal
Jason Elmore &  Hoodoo Witch – Champagne Velvet
Golden State Lone Star Blues Revue
Dennis Gruenling – Ready or Not
James Hunter Six – Hold On!
Mitch Kashmar – West Coast Toast
Guy King – Truth
Don Leady & His Rockin’ Revue – Poppy Toppy Gone
Nick Moss Band – From the Root to the Fruit
The Paladins – Slippin’ in Ernesto’s
Eli “Paperboy” Reed – My Way Home
Sugar Ray & The Bluetones – Seeing is Believing
Jim Suhler & Monkey Beat – Live at the Kessler
Trickbag –  With Friends Vol 2
Tony Vega Band – Black Magic Box
Wee Willie Walker & The Greaseland All Stars – Live! in Notodden
Nick Waterhouse – Never Twice
Raphael Wressnig & Igor Prado – The Soul Connection
Nancy Wright – Playdate!
Sven Zetterberg – Something for Everybody

I have to add one – I completely forgot about

Bobby Radcliff – Absolute Hell

I could certainly have kept going and included the latest from Kurt Crandall, Big Jon Atkinson & Bob Corritore, William Bell, John Primer, the Bo-Keys, Tinsley Ellis, John Long, Matthew Skoller, Lil’ Ed, Bob Margolin, and any number of other excellent albums, but I had to draw the line somewhere. Some of those CDs would have made the list yesterday, and might again tomorrow. The lesson: There’s a lot of beautiful music out there if you know where to look. I stand by all of these albums – great stuff. Get ’em if you ain’t got ’em, and buy another copy for a friend.

61w77lu5kll-_ac_us218_

That Eli “Paperboy” Reed album is really special. Pops Staples meets James Brown, or something like that. It’s on fire.

I’m going to keep separate a pair of absolutely essential, sizzling platters full of rare and previously unreleased music from two blues masters:

61bjrhpsejl-_ac_us218_

B.B. King – Here’s One You Didn’t Know About

250x250_rustyzinnbluesville

Rusty Zinn – Last Train to Bluesville

When I wrote “essential,” I meant it.

Hit me with any complaints or “Right On!”s you might have.

Advertisements

J.T. Lauritsen & Friends – Play by the Rules

Lauritsen

J.T. Lauritsen & Friends

Play by the Rules

Hunters Records, 2013

jtlauritsen.com

Over the course of six albums, J.T. Lauritsen has shown an unmistakable feeling for the music of the American South, with strong examples of blues, country, roots rock, and Louisiana music in varying styles to his credit. The singer and accordion, Hammond organ, and harmonica player cut his latest set in two sessions: one at home in Norway, with his working band The Buckshot Hunters; the other at Ardent Studios in Memphis, with a collection of well-known American musicians. Drummer Jon Grimbsy keeps time on every cut. The results are absolutely enjoyable: Play by the Rules is a terrific collection.

The Ardent date (12 May 2012) produced five songs. “Next Time,” a Lauritsen composition that shares a melody with Chris Kenner’s “Sick and Tired,” rides straight out of New Orleans on Victor Wainwright’s rolling piano and Grimsby’s second-line drums. Josh Roberts contributes a tersely phrased and effective guitar solo. The title track, a stately mid-tempo ballad, features prominent piano and accordion, with vocal harmonies by Debbie Jamison and Teresa James. Roberts’s slide guitar curlicues, delivered in a thick tone à la Ry Cooder, are the key sonic element. On the excellent instrumental “Memphis Boogie,” Lauritsen (accordion), Wainwright, and Roberts trade solos at a breakneck pace. A pair of shuffle, paced by Willie J. Campbell (Mannish Boys, Fabulous Thunderbirds, James Harman) on bass and Greg Gumpel (who plays bass on the other Ardent sides) on guitar, rounds out the Memphis sessions. Walter Horton’s “Need My Babe,” with crucial B3 from Paul Wagnberg, pits Lauritsen in a harmonica blow-off with Billy Gibson. Gumpel turns in a lovely train-wreck guitar solo on Bo Carlsson’s stomping shuffle “The Blues Got Me,” which closes the disc.

Seven songs come from a session in Oslo (6 February 2013). A solid version of the swamp pop classic “Mathilda,” originally by Cookie & The Cupcakes, with guitar by Arnfinn Tørrisen, leads into Lauritsen’s “Find My Little Girl,” which rocks along over a “Hi Heel Sneakers” groove and spotlights Anson Funderburgh’s sleek leads. Funderburgh also contributes rhythm guitar to an atmospheric reading of Gillian Welch’s “Valley of Tears,” which is both delicate and murky. Big Joe Maher’s “Ever Since The World Began” sounds particularly sweet, backed with Lauritsen’s accordion and the rollicking groove laid down by Grimsby and bassist/backing vocalist Atle Rakvåg. Rakvåg, the co-producer, submitted a pair of songs he wrote with Knut Eide: the clever “Eye Candy,” a riff-based rocker, and a truly gorgeous ballad, “I’ll Never Get Over You.” The rhythm section plays subtly under Wagnberg’s keyboards (Fender Rhodes and Hammond B3), guitars by Tørrisen and Ian Fredrick Johnnessen, and lush harmony vocals by Reba Russel and Debbie Jamison. This composition, in the Northern soul style, could as easily have come from the UK in the ‘80s as from Philadelphia in the late ‘60s, but fits perfectly in this context and is surely one of this year’s finest new songs.

Lauritsen always sings with passion and deep soulfulness, and–for Anglophones who may care–no trace of a Scandinavian accent. He removes all doubt in the opening track, a cover of William Bell’s Stax classic “Everyday Will Be Like A Holiday,” where he shares lead vocal duties with Sven Zetterberg, unquestionably one of the greatest living singers of deep soul music. (Kerry Clarke and Larry McCray are the impressive background voices.) The fresh arrangement (sans sleigh bells) is pitch-perfect, as is the balance of instruments throughout the album. Whether recorded by The Buckshot Hunters or by a crew weighted with Blues Music Award-winning instrumentalists, every cut is guided by Lauritsen’s authentic vision of American roots music styles. I recommend Play by the Rules without reservations.

TOM HYSLOP

Review copy of this CD was provided by Frank Roszak Radio Promotions.

The Chris Ruest Band – Live at Shakespeare’s

flyerShakespeare

Chris Ruest Band

Live at The Shakespeare Pub • Houston, Texas

2013

http://www.chrisruest.com/

If you haven’t been paying attention to his career, this is the short version of what you need to know: Chris Ruest is the real thing. The New Englander has been a resident of Texas for well over a decade. Already a serious student and lover of traditional blues and blues-oriented jazz artists, the singer-guitarist came up through Brian “Hash Brown” Calway’s band (justly regarded as the finishing school of choice for aspiring Dallas blues musicians), and has worked with many of the Lone Star State’s most important talents, including the great Ray Sharpe (“Linda Lu”). Ruest cut his third CD, Live at Shakespeare’s, in March of this year, with JD Ditullio on drums, and the great Ronnie James (Nightcats, Fabulous Thunderbirds, Jimmie Vaughan, Nick Moss) on bass.

This brand new album revisits only a few selections from Ruest’s previous releases, 2005’s Too Many Problems and 2011’s No 2nd Chances (both excellent sets, recorded with all-star bands and loaded with well-written original tunes), but those provide an overview of his stylistic range. “Poor Lil’ Greta,” Chris’s apologetic ode to a deceased pet, spotlights slide guitar and a deep blues groove, both unmistakably cut from Muddy Waters’s slow blues template. “My Baby Loves Me,” with its swaggering shuffle and slashing slide guitar figure, is firmly in the tradition of Elmore James. And “You Suck” lulls us into thinking it is a garden-variety you’re-mistreating-me song, until Ruest sings the laugh-out-loud funny chorus. James and Ditullio lay down a quirky, throwback R&B groove a mile wide, reminiscent of “I’m Shakin’.”

The balance of the playlist expands on these elements with intelligently selected covers that give insight into, and pay tribute to, some of Ruest’s favorite artists. He dials up the reverb for a harrowing take on Magic Sam’s fabulous (and rarely covered) “Out of Bad Luck,” replete with a blistering guitar break, and ratchets up the rumba feel behind an update of Arthur Crudup’s “Mean Ole Frisco,” filtered through B.B. King’s version, with lead guitar that nails King’s ’50s style. There’s a strong take on Muddy’s “Champagne and Reefer,” a hard-shuffling adaptation of Lonesome Sundown’s swamp classic “Don’t Say A Word,” and two of Elmore’s greatest songs: a bristling romp through “Cry For Me” and a greasy reading of the stop-time Latin-influenced “Can’t Stop Loving My Baby.” I know “Bark” best from the Darrell Nulisch-era Anson Funderburgh & The Rockets; the band deftly handles this loping shuffle.

What do Elmore James and The Rockets have in common? Why, Sam Myers, of course. The harmonica great was a bluesman in the truest sense of that now-debased word, and perhaps the strongest influence felt by Ruest, who acted as the legend’s right-hand-man during the last three years of Sam’s life. Ruest pays tribute to his close friend by singing Sam’s “Sad Lonesome Day,” adorning the slow blues with elegant guitar lines à la King and Funderburgh, and his vintage gem “Sleepin’ in the Ground,” which presents Ruest’s guitar playing at its meanest, dirtiest, and most low-down.

The presence of the proto-punk nugget “Strychnine” reflects the influence of another of Ruest’s closest friends. The late, great Nick Curran was a fearless free spirit who was apt to follow a T-Bone Walker chestnut with a selection from the catalog of The Stooges, or to pair a Little Richard song with an AC/DC number. Viewed in that light, the seemingly improbable inclusion of The Sonics’ wild ’60s rocker makes perfect sense. Two excellent instrumentals, one by Albert Collins (“The Freeze”), the other from Ike Turner (“Cuban Getaway”) bracket the set. Ruest politely converts a mid-show request for something by Stevie Ray Vaughan into a teaching opportunity, instead performing yet another iconic instrumental: a stinging version of Freddie King’s “Funnybone.”

Like the rest of the program, these three songs let the band work out on touchstone tunes that still sound fresh, owing to their relative scarcity in the playlists of contemporary bands, and demonstrate Ruest’s control of the essential themes of real blues guitar. His playing, sometimes deliberate, frequently savage, is always intense, carrying the threat of violence that was imminent in the approach of Curran, or Pat Hare. Paired with this outstanding rhythm section, Ruest–one of the toughest players anywhere–is on fire. Live at Shakespeare‘s is his master class in blues history, vividly performed, and should attract a great of overdue attention.

TOM HYSLOP

The artist kindly provided the CD for this review.

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.