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

Holland_Stuff

Tom Holland & The Shuffle Kings

No Fluff, Just The Stuff

E Natchel Records, 2013

http://www.tomhollandshufflekings.com/

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.

TOM HYSLOP

I bought this CD from the artist.

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Here’s Nikki Hill

nikki

Nikki Hill

Here’s Nikki Hill

Deep Fryed Records, 2013

www.nikkihillmusic.com

Originally from North Carolina and now calling St. Louis home, Nikki Hill is the real thing: a roots rock ‘n’ soul star with the talent of Etta James and the megawatt charisma and sheer detonating power of artists like Rachel Nagy of the Detroit Cobras and the late, great Nick Curran. Her band features a solid rhythm section in Ed Strohsahl (bass) and Joe Meyer (drums), not to mention a well-known guitarist in her husband, Matt Hill, who won in the Best New Artist Debut category in the 2011 Blues Music Award balloting. Nikki Hill dropped a four-song calling card in the form of a self-titled EP last year. Now the singer-songwriter has folded that impressive debut into a full-length album, Here’s Nikki Hill. It is outstanding.

Four songs are drawn from the EP: the fierce, Delta-style boogie of “I’ve Got A Man,” which gives the Jelly Roll Kings a run for their money; the majestic deep soul ballad “Don’t Cry Anymore,” propelled by Matt Hill’s staccato chanks on his guitar and Steve Eisen’s one-man saxophone section, sung at a slow burn (“It’s too late, and I can’t put out the fire” indeed!); and “Strapped To The Beat,” a sassy roots rock number with a boogie-woogie guitar line out of Carl Perkins’s “Matchbox,” again featuring Eisen. The languid, sultry groover “Her Destination” interprets the “nothing can keep me from my lover” theme, even quoting “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough.” For Here’s Nikki Hill, the cut has been re-recorded to eliminate the saxophone that was prominent in the original version. It now boasts a tougher vocal, dirtier guitar tones, and a snarling solo, with the effect of making the overall atmosphere even nastier and more pheromone-charged.

Here’s Nikki Hill’s new material is thrilling. With its soul-clap drum hits, distinctive bent-note guitar figure, and vicious solo, the phenomenal “Ask Yourself” is reminiscent of Irma Thomas’s 1963 platter, “Hittin’ On Nothin’.” “Right On The Brink” serves dramatic, minor key soul over a churning beat, interspersed with ominous breakdowns that are the aural equivalent of the storms of which Hill sings. “Gotta Find My Baby” sways with a fevered urgency, coming from somewhere in the R&B neighborhood frequented by Don Covay, Ike & Tina Turner, and Eddie Hinton. It is irresistible, from the groove to the speedy amplifier tremolo to Hill’s guileless yet suggestive delivery. Even her “Do-do-doos” are knockouts.

Hill reaches back a few years stylistically for “I Know,” the Barbara George hit out of New Orleans that Freddie King also covered. Her splendid phrasing and some well-placed growls and squeals really bring this to life; Hill’s guitar break, sketching the melody and accentuating it with tremolo picking and pedal steel-like bends, is top notch. Hill completely reimagines the album’s other cover, shifting “Who Were You Thinking Of?” from the Tex-Mex treatment it received in the hands of Doug Sahm and Texas Tornadoes to a ska foundation–only the twanging lead guitars hint at the song’s origins. The audacious move works perfectly. The playlist eases out with a smoky gospel-inflected ballad, “Hymn for Hard Luck,” that left me marveling at the understated power created by just Nikki’s voice and Matt’s electric guitar. Here and across the board, the sound has a delicious vintage vibe, owing to the attentive ears, Grail-like gear, and matchless musical hipness found in the confines of co-producer Felix Reyes’s House of Tone, a Chicago area studio quickly becoming known as one of the world’s premier recording facilities for roots and blues music.

If she keeps making records like this, Nikki Hill cannot miss. She is already wowing audiences on the blues and R&B circuits in the US and Europe, and at the same time knocking ‘em out on the rockabilly scene. I daresay Hill also has the kind of soul and style it takes to conquer the rootsy corner of the (punk) rock universe inhabited by acts like Rev. Horton Heat, Detroit Cobras, and Social Distortion. So get hip if you ain’t, buy Here’s Nikki Hill, tell all your friends about her, and you can say you were in on this explosion at the beginning.

TOM HYSLOP

I purchased this CD from http://www.nikkihillmusic.com