Guy King: Solo and Organ Trio Recordings

By Myself I Am Who I Am And It Is What It Is

GUY KING

By Myself

I Am Who I Am And It Is What It Is

IBF Records, 2012

guyking.net

Guy King established his credentials in the six years he spent as bandleader for Chicago legend Willie Kent, during which his tough but nuanced lead guitar playing was a major part of The Gents’ hard-edged blues sound. Following Kent’s death in 2006, King embarked upon a solo career. His debut album Livin’ It, on which a new, tightly arranged style, inflected with smooth, jazz-shaded R&B, began to emerge, was nominated for a Blues Music Award; and the guitarist, a native of Israel, seemed to be everywhere at once, appearing nationally and internationally with his blues band, playing solo shows, and fronting an organ trio around Chicago. Then he seemingly fell off the map. As it turns out, King has been spending most of his time abroad, mainly performing in Israel and Brazil. Given that he is preparing to return to the United States for a series of dates scheduled around the 2014 Chicago Blues Festival, now seems a good time to take stock of the two excellent albums King quietly released at the end of summer 2012.

Willie Kent’s gritty electric blues were one thing; the uptown Livin’ It was quite another. What King does on By Myself is completely unexpected. Powerful interpretations of songs by pre-war blues icon Robert Johnson make up nearly half of the 15-song set. King shows a surprising affinity for the form, with a mastery of Johnson’s technique and chords, a snappy, percussive attack that brings a full and expressive sound to the solo guitar, and vocals that shift from full to falsetto, always sounding natural and often impassioned, as when his voice breaks in “Hellhound On My Trail,” where King evokes hopeless resignation in the face of haunting mystery. At the other end of the emotional register is the relatively plainspoken “Steady Rollin’ Man,” also among the strongest performances here. King’s singing takes on a notable resonance and vibrato, appropriately enough, on “Can’t Be Satisfied,” one of two Muddy Waters numbers, and thumps fleet runs on the bass strings of his guitar behind Lightnin’ Hopkins’s “Katie Mae,” which closes this portion of the program.

Don’t despair if Mississippi and Texas blues are not your thing. Five songs at the end of the CD come from an entirely different direction. Still solo, still built on King’s acoustic guitar and evocative singing, they touch on more contemporary and more cosmopolitan musical styles. “I Am Who I Am And It Is What It Is” is a swinging, soulful, upbeat number with a jazzy flair. Next King reprises the sophisticated ballad “Alone In The City,” from Livin’ It. Stripped of its electric instruments and horns, it sounds more like Percy Mayfield or even Charles Brown at his gloomiest–with Ray Charles somewhere at the root of both versions. King overdubs subtle percussion on the last few songs, all in the bossa nova style, beginning with his reading of the jazz standard “Nature Boy,” continuing through his lively cover of Joao Gilberto’s “Acapulco,” and ending with a smoky “Besame Mucho.” This is music for lovers, indeed.

Recorded with Mike Schlick (drums) and Ben Paterson (organ), the two-CD set I Am Who I Am And It Is What It Is offers a cool cruise through jazz and standards, blues and ballads, soul and R&B, and pop. The program begins with a band version of the title track before moving to Charlie Parker’s “Yardbird Suite.” King then shifts from bop to the birth of soul, with an emotional “Drown In My Own Tears.” Next up is a light “Sweet Lorraine,” a rousing “Mojo,” then back to jazz with Stanley Turrentine’s bluesy “Sugar,” and on to Percy Mayfield’s “Please Send Me Someone To Love” and a “Going To Chicago” much toned down from any of the often-heard Joe Williams versions. King’s interest in Brazil comes out in Jobim’s uptempo “Agua De Beber.” Bobby Hebb’s pop smash “Sunny” yields to another Ray Charles ballad before King delivers a wondrous “Tear It Down,” capturing not only Wes Montgomery’s signature octaves but his excitement and effortless swing. Paterson is on fire here, too, and Schlick ably covers the drum breaks.

The second disc unfolds along the same lines, covering standards romantic (“You’ve Changed,” “Moonlight In Vermont”) and frivolous (“The Frim Fram Sauce”); jazz (“Green Dolphin Street” and workouts on McGriff’s “Vicky” and Burrell’s “Kenny’s Sound”); lush ballads from Billie Holiday (“God Bless The Child”) and Stevie Wonder (“Lately”); the breezy Brazilian “Brigas Nunca Mais”; blues (a pitiful “All Over Again,” from B.B. King’s catalog) and R&B (from Ray Charles once more, in a splendid “Roll With My Baby”). As is often the case with organ trios, some of the best material comes from unlikely places. King nods to the soul jazz tradition with sweet pop and elegant soul selections (“Isn’t She Lovely” and “Me And Mrs. Jones”), and surprises with the country weeper “Crying Time,” perhaps learned from Buck Owens, or remembered from bluesman Phillip Walker’s Playboy Records LP. In either case, it is devastating. Overall, the division between instrumentals and vocal numbers is about even, the latter showing King’s pleasant, expressive range, and on virtually every track, King and Paterson trade solos that, even when speaking the language of jazz, retain bluesy phrasing and tonalities. The group has a real feeling for the entire range of styles on What It Is, an absolutely lovely album on many levels.

King’s achievement is all the more impressive when one considers that both albums were recorded virtually off-the-cuff. Inspired after an evening’s gig, King cut the solo album in a single session, using an acoustic guitar belonging to the studio. In much the same way, the 30 songs on the organ trio record were laid down, in much less than 24 hours, during the course of an all-nighter, with a brief follow-up later in the afternoon. One might reasonably wonder if there is anything he can’t do, and where he will take us next. King has in fact been writing and recording new material, with an ear sensibly tilted toward producing great music, without much concern for genre restrictions. The touchstone artists whose work inspired the two works considered here–Muddy Waters, Antonio Carlos Jobim, Stevie Wonder, Nat “King” Cole, and Ray Charles in particular–seem likely to play a continuing role in King’s musical development. That is an evolution I don’t want to miss. In taking the varied music he loves and recasting it in new combinations, Guy King is going about his art the right way. Musicians with genuinely big ears are rare, and talent like King’s is rarer still.

TOM HYSLOP

I bought these CDs from the artist’s Web site.

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Nikki Hill with Deke Dickerson and the Bo-Keys • Soul Meets Country

2013 Deke Dickerson Nikki Hillsoulmeetscountry

Nikki Hill & Deke Dickerson

Soul Meets Country

Major Label CD/7-inch + download/download, 2013

nikkihillmusic.com

www.dekedickerson.com

www.thebokeys.com

This four track EP is slight when measured in playing time, but from the perspective of the hardcore roots music aficionado, it is a summit meeting that rivals Destroy All Monsters in earth-shaking significance. Deke Dickerson is one of the most enthusiastic and accomplished proponents of American music: as a performer, producer, promoter, fan, collector, scholar, author, and more, he does it all. Nikki Hill is, hands down, the most exciting new artist in the true rock-and-soul variety of R&B; her calling card Here’s Nikki Hill (2013) and relentless touring have devastated audiences all over the planet. And Scott Bomar’s Bo-Keys, heavy with legendary alumni of the Stax and Hi bands, are dedicated keepers of Memphis’s deep soul tradition who happen to make vital new music. Combine the three ingredients, shake, and dig the results on Soul Meets Country. First roll back the carpet, ‘cause you know it’s going to be a party.

Two Hill-Dickerson duets open the program. First is the Otis Redding-Carla Thomas chestnut “Lovey Dovey.” Dickerson obviously doesn’t sing with Redding’s intensity (who does?), but his sweet, unguarded delivery carries ample emotional force, and matches up nicely with the raw edge of Hill’s voice. Their banter has a lilting quality that works well against the push-pull of the rhythm section, which takes the song at a leisurely tempo. The feel is relaxed and greasy, due in large part to Howard Grimes’s emphasis on the backbeat versus the four-to-the-bar snare hits of the frenetic original.

Next comes “Feelin’s,” made famous by Conway Twitty and Loretta Lynn, here given a new coat of paint. Stripped of the original’s prominent steel guitar and played a few clicks of the metronome faster, the tune is driven by a surging horn chart, syncopated interplay between Grimes’s snare and Bomar’s bass, and the tambourine of Jack Ashford–a sound familiar from countless classic Motown productions. Dickerson twangs his way through a brief, lovely guitar solo, and his relaxed vocal harmonization with Hill is perfect.

Rounding out Soul Meets Country is a pair of individual numbers. “Struttin’” percolates to life with a steady bass pulse and stop-time choruses. Hill is at her sassiest here. It’s as tough as anything ever waxed, and the sound, with Bomar’s Wurlitzer piano and some very Steve Cropper-esque guitar parts by Dickerson figuring prominently in the arrangement, is reminiscent of Wilson Pickett’s classic Memphis and Muscle Shoals recordings. Dickerson revisits his “Lady Killin’ Papa” as the country funk workout “Lady Killa.” Motown ace Dennis Coffey’s wah-wah guitar is the essential sonic ingredient here, along with Archie Turner’s organ and the killer rhythm section-horn interplay that is all over the disc.

In a rare instance of truth in labeling, Soul Meets Country offers just that: four songs, Dixie-fried to delicious perfection. Fans of the Bo-Keys, Deke Dickerson, or Nikki Hill will absolutely love this one, and anyone with even a passing interest in American roots music ought to hear it. Highest recommendation.

TOM HYSLOP

I bought this CD from http://www.dekedickerson.com/shopping/merch3.php

and it is now available from the world’s greatest retailer of our kind of music: http://www.bluebeatmusic.com/

Dale Watson – iF yoU

DALEWATSON1VINYL_lg

Dale Watson

iF yoU

vinyl single/digital download

http://www.theconnextion.com/dalewatson/dalewatson_cat.cfm?CatID=280

The great Ameripolitan singer/songwriter/guitarist Dale Watson was a superb practitioner of, and an outspoken ambassador for, real country music long before the 1995 release of his first Hightone album. In the years since, his relentless touring and recording schedule (with two full-length CDs, El Rancho Azul and Dalevis: Sun Sessions 2, already out in 2013) have won him fans the world over. In fact, “Old Fart (A Song For Blake),” Watson’s spirited rejoinder (also released this year) to the ill-informed and disrespectful comments about traditional country music and its audience made by Blake Shelton, caught the ear of at least one high-profile listener: David Letterman, who invited Watson to appear on The Late Show in June.

It never pays to sleep on a Dale Watson release. The Austin, Texas-based artist will always tell you exactly what is on his mind, no matter if that is heartbreakingly personal or a sincerely flippant flip-off, and whether he is working in a carefully crafted concept album–he’s built records around, for instance, trucking songs; people and places on the road; love songs for his late fiancée; Johnny Paycheck compositions; and original spirituals, to cite a few–or dropping a quickly written and recorded single, like “Song For Blake” or “Tiger Airways And Their We Don’t Care-Ways.” The prolific Watson is back with yet another project you should hear: The brand new iF yoU, a six-song suite that, at just over 11 minutes playing time, pretty much covers both ends of the emotional spectrum, and everything in between, in prime Watson style.

Watson knows the line between love and hate, as the Persuaders sang, is thin indeed, and he wisely tempers the venom of these breakup songs with humor. The title track, iF yoU, obviously riffs on the play on words highlighted by the irregular capitalization. It’s an uptempo number, with Dale and his female counterpart Sarah Gayle Meech sparring in classic country duet style, beginning their lines with the not-so-veiled insult: “iF yoU were the last person in this world, it wouldn’t work.” Over the fade, they argue over the common complaints of close living: snoring, sharing razors and toilet seat positioning.

A pentatonic-scale guitar figure that quotes the music of old black-and-white “oriental” films opens the roots-rocking “Sayonara Sucka,” in which Watson’s Tokyo baby drops him via a letter. In just over a minute, he is able to pack the song with references to sake, kamikazes, and hara-kiri–clichéd perhaps, but right in tune with the genre (“Fujiyama Mama,” anyone?). I hear at least an oblique nod to Buck Owens’s “Made In Japan.” The next cut, “I’ll See Ya Never,” is squarely in the mode of Elvis’s early RCA sides, with a structure that owes a debt to “Heartbreak Hotel,” backing vocals à la the Jordanaires, and Floyd Cramer-esque piano. Watson’s vocal, sweet and gritty by turns, fits the sound beautifully as he delivers his farewell with finality. “I’m So Done With You,” a rollicking number done purely in the style of Johnny Cash’s “Big River,” could have come from Watson’s first Sun Sessions album. Watson’s vocal bends evoke the great singer, while the bass-string runs on his electric guitar recall Luther Perkins’s indelible parts.

An upbeat country shuffle marked by wiry blues guitar, “Adios” incorporates German, Italian, and Spanish phrases for good-bye in Watson’s hearty vocal. The mini-album closes with another fast rocker, “Don’t Let The Screen Door Hit Ya,” another excellent track that makes equal use of colloquialisms and newly-minted images (“You might smell fresh-brewed coffee/But it’s just you wakin’ up for the first time in your life”) in its kiss-off message. Strong piano and electric guitar and a memorable snare drum figure make this cook.

Good-byes have long served as subject matter central to virtually all forms of popular music, and country music is certainly no stranger to the break-up song. But that particular well is bottomless: just as lovers meet every day, so do hearts continue to be broken. When Dale Watson, one of our most observant and trenchant songwriters, turns his attention to the subject, it rewards us to listen. And, at less than $7 U.S. for the vinyl album (and under $6 for the digital version), iF yoU–a slight, yet superb, set–is a bargain.

TOM HYSLOP

I bought this record from Dale Watson’s online store (link above).

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.

Hillbilly Boogie Surfin’ Blues

HBSB

Don Leady

Hillbilly Boogie Surfin’ Blues

http://donleady.com/

www.thetailgators.com/

Don Leady, a founding member of Austin, Texas’s Leroi Brothers, may be best known for his next gig, as front man for the roots-rocking trio The Tail Gators. The original Tail Gators–Leady, Gary “Mud Cat” Smith (drums), and the legendary Keith Ferguson (electric bass)–served up an incredible, one-of-a-kind mish-mash of blues, surf, Cajun, country, Tex-Mex, soul, and rockabilly (among other flavors), and were the band to beat for low-down Americana. It’s been more than a decade and a half since the Tail Gators waxed their seventh and last long-player, It’s A Hog Groove, in 1996, so what a delight it was to discover Don Leady’s new Facebook page and to learn that he has just issued a solo CD to satisfy our cravings for dirty guitar instrumentals.

At just under half an hour’s running time, the appropriately-titled Hillbilly Boogie Surfin’ Blues is short but ever so sweet. Backed alternately by Art Kidd and Nico on drums, and playing all the guitar and bass parts himself, Leady picks up where he left off with the Tail Gators, laying down a dozen cuts of prime–and primal–roots music.  An instrumental trio more than suffices; Leady, a modern-day Don Rich, never even breaks out his fiddle, instead choosing to draw on a dizzying palette of picking and stylistic approaches on his guitar, and to employ a range of across-the-board great tones.

There’s nothing here not to like. The set opens with the charging “Bull Doggin’ Boogie.” Also on the country side of things are “Ice Cream Star,” a fast instrumental of Albert Lee-like precision with a basic boogie section in the middle to cool things down a bit, and the hammer-and-pull-a-thon “Hillbilly Blues,” in which Leady dials in a tone of steel guitar-like clarity. “Thunder And Lightning,” which closes the album, comes out of the same acrobatic bag.

The mid-tempo “Texas Dance Hall Blues” splits the difference between country and blues with panache, and delivers a few off-the-wall surprises worthy of the old Speedy West and Jimmy Bryant sides. If you yearn for pure blues, check out Leady’s cover of the Lightnin’ Hopkins chestnut “Lightnin’s Boogie”; his swinging “Fat Wolf Blues,” with its “Dust My Broom” quotation, tricky syncopations, and high-wire soloing; and the wonderfully wobbly “Slo Bo,” which plays expertly with some of Bo Diddley’s patented Latin-influenced rhythms (but not his famed hambone beat) and tricky chordal lead work.

Leady has a knack for creating moods that are almost tangible. The swamp pop confection “Louisiana Feeling” is achingly, last-dance sweet. Check out Leady’s (reverb) tanked-up frolic, “Echo Surf Boogie,” with its nods to both the California-bred surf styles and to the UK guitar hero Hank Marvin, or his tom tom-driven tribute to the garage rockin’ master, Link Wray, in “Crazy Link.” The Western epic “Ride Of The Ruthless,” originally recorded for the Big Guitars From Texas compilation back in the day, is practically cinematic in its drama and immediacy.

Talk of the Big Guitars series brings to mind a fitting description for Leady’s music: Trash, Twang, and Thunder. If you were a Tail Gators fan back in the day, I suspect you stopped reading some time ago, for at least long enough to track down and order a copy of Hillbilly Boogie Surfin’ Blues. If you are new to the guitar stylings of Don Leady, I can make only this recommendation: Get it if you ain’t got it! It is pure dynamite.

TOM HYSLOP

Review copy was purchased from http://www.cdbaby.com/