Will Porter, Tick Tock Tick

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Will Porter

Tick Tock Tick

Gramofono Sound (U.S.), dist. Kent Records (U.K.)

This superb album is too good to remain under wraps. My full-length review will appear soon in Blues Music Magazine. Here is a preview.

 

Will Porter’s singing is so natural as to make his considerable technique transparent, even invisible. Leveraging valuable contributions from Dr. John, the Womack Brothers, Bettye LaVette, and others, and making the most of producer Wardell Quezergue’s arrangements, Tick Tock Tick catches our attention with swaggering soul and jagged funk, and draws us in with thoughtful blues and lush, quietly devastating ballads. This is timeless stuff, the perfect restorative for listeners out of patience with an endless stream of showy but ultimately shallow music. Porter has made a record full of soul and heart that grown-up human beings will respond to and love.

 

 

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Bobby Murray • I’m Sticking With You

Murray

Bobby Murray

I’m Sticking With You

http://www.reverbnation.com/bobbymurray

 

Consider his association with such legends as Johnnie Taylor, Johnny “Guitar” Watson, Otis Rush, Lowell Fulson, John Lee Hooker, Percy Mayfield, Jimmy McCracklin, and Albert King; the three Grammy Awards on his shelf; and his lengthy solo career: Bobby Murray rates among the most accomplished sidemen and bandleaders in the blues. Although he is often thought of as a West Coast musician, having come up in a band alongside Robert Cray, and having enjoyed 22 years working for Etta James, after 18 years Bobby Murray is surely a Detroiter. He holds the Detroit Blues Society’s Lifetime Achievement Award (2011), and his fourth album as a leader features some of the Motor City’s top talent on a world-class contemporary soul blues recording.

The guitarist’s core band on the recently released I’m Sticking With You included Dave Uricek (bass), Mark Thibodeau (organ), and Renell Gonsalves (drums), with occasional guitar from recording and mixing engineer/co-producer Brian “Roscoe” White. The set list, made up entirely of Murray’s original compositions and co-writes, encompasses slinky minor key grooves in the Robert Cray mold, gospel-drenched ballads, fresh-sounding shuffles, slow blues, and inventive soul blues and funk. Murray’s unique guitar work, which blends a lowdown approach with fluid, modern lines, is at the forefront, along with the contributions of several exceptional singers who assist Thibodeau, Uricek, and Murray with vocals.

Sticking opens with “Finders Keepers,” a chugging soul-blues number from Murray’s days with Frankie Lee. Here its drive is so relentless the take could easily slide into one of Otis Clay’s live albums. Organ and guitar solos are pithy and memorable; “Red” Redding gives a smoky, restrained, yet charged vocal performance. Singer Paul Randolph is superb on the title track, a staccato dance groove with funky accents and lovely backing vocals. Murray plays jagged, tangled solos in a modern, distorted tone. On “Ooowee,” strictly a down home, Jimmy Reed-inflected shuffle, his lead work alternates lazy “traditional” blues lines and chording with burbling, rapid-fire picking, always wedded firmly to the beat.

On “Comin’ Atcha,” White and Murray spar with solos reminiscent of Robben Ford’s style, but exciting. Laying down the minor key groove on this song only is a rhythm section of Ron Pangborn (drums) and Nolan Mendenhall (bass). Thibodeau’s piano opens “Rock My Soul” with a Ray Charles quotation, leading into a deeply soulful, gospel number with a testifying vocal by Barbara Payton, a memorable, two-chord figure, chiming rhythm guitars, and crisp lead guitar with Murray sounding much like Cray. (I’m sure he tires of reading that, but on this cut it is true.) Tom Hogarth sings “Shake It Baby, Shake It,” a light, upbeat, funky tune remotely like “Groove Me,” with soul-stew double-stops and hard-driving interludes.

Redding is back at the microphone on “Baby Needs Some Lovin’ Too,” which could almost be a forgotten classic from the heyday of Chicago soul save for a middle section that bedims the song’s sunny mood (wonderful writing here), and on the slow blues “Bad Case Of The Blues,” a showcase for Murray’s tough, tasteful guitar. “Baby, What Took Your Love Away” is another crisp, mid-tempo, minor key song with dramatic movement. Murray slathers “Movin’ On Down The Line,” a swaggering blues-with-a-touch-of soul, with greasy guitar. The program comes to a close with the churning, dark funk “Building Of Love.” Take a killer bass line, add wah and/or Leslie effects on the guitar, a few catchy and complex changes, and you have a solid slab of classic Detroit soul, updated for our times.

“A modern take on classic styles” aptly describes I’m Sticking With You. Bobby Murray and company have delivered a disc that sounds fresh yet has the ring of familiarity. Its 11 tracks are well-written, expertly sung and played blues, soul, and funk, every one a winner.

TOM HYSLOP

I received this CD courtesy of the Detroit Blues Society (detroitbluessociety.org/), in whose Blues Notes newsletter of August 2014 this review originally appeared.

 

Laura Rain and the Caesars • Closer

LRC CLOSER

Laura Rain and the Caesars

Closer

LRC, 2014

Available from cdbaby.com and amazon.com

laurarain.net

 

Detroit’s Laura Rain and the Caesars seem to have internalized everything good about blues, R&B, funk, and soul, and in the process created something smart and soulful of their own: a retro modern vision of soul and blues music, immediately familiar yet completely fresh. This set expands on last year’s debut Electrified with more great songs, killer arrangements, a broader range of styles, and a deeper blues feeling that permeates every track.

The core group of Caesars remains the same: Ron Pangborn (drums and percussion), Phil Hale (keyboards, including left-hand “bass”), and George Friend (guitar, co-writer, recording and mixing engineer). For Closer, Rain and bandleader Friend had very definite notions about how the completed songs ought to sound, and to that end brought in ringers in some cases to achieve specific goals. The album credits list drummers Terry Thunder, Todd Glass, and Rick Beamon, with Sheila Hale on tambourine; Leon Powell and Jim Simonson (electric bass); Duncan McMillan (organ); and Johnny Evans (saxophones) and John Douglas (trumpet). This Detroit All-Star team has laid down a record that sounds full when it needs to and spare elsewhere. Uptown and lowdown, hungry, vivid, and confident, Closer is just plain badass.

In the album opener, “Seasons,” the Caesars build a funky brick house on a bone-crunching, AC/DC-worthy riff. Rain’s impassioned call-and-response vocal sanctifies the grounds. “Super Duper Love” (not the Sugar Billy song covered by Joss Stone) is a knowing, instant-classic 21st Century soul blues hit that grafts a gritty guitar break and an indelible vocal hook onto a syncopated, bass-and-organ figure that could have come straight from an early-‘80s side by Prince or Rick James. Another unforgettably catchy melody tops “Dirty Man,” an ultra-funky slice of modern-leaning, mid-tempo R&B. Slightly more classical in form, “Meet Me in the Middle” is an irresistible dance number, filled with swirling organ, hard-hitting horn blasts, and a slamming rhythm section. Rain’s phrasing and timbre are ideally matched to the song, and absolutely delicious. Her sass and enthusiasm are reminiscent of another great Detroit singer, a legend whose initials are A.F. An infectious, straight ahead blues, “Squawkin’” updates Little Milton’s immortal “That’s What Love Will Do” with an especially hip bass line, ferocious drumming, and the stinging guitar of Caesar-in-chief Friend. Rain’s on-the-money wails are heart-stoppingly effective.

The Caesars visit the deep South on several numbers. Soulful backing voices and an insistent rhythmic pulse give “He Is” a distinctly gospel-inflected, Muscle Shoals sound that would make Mavis Staples envious. Friend’s terse lead guitar neatly cuts through an atmosphere thick with electric piano and clavinet. “Awful Sin” comes straight from the swamp. A dark, brooding tonality puts the song in a class with Tony Joe White’s “Did Somebody Make A Fool Out Of You,” but Friend’s slinky guitar lines, wobbly with tremolo, and a greasy, ominous groove stamp it with that difficult-to-capture Staple Singers feeling. “All Of Me” could be a lost O.V. Wright or Ann Peebles record. Its bluesy groove, something like “Breaking Up Somebody’s Home,” sets a rock-solid rhythmic hook that frees Rain to do her thing; a sophisticated middle section moves the song to another, transcendent level. Finally, still in the Royal Studio mode, “Closer” has all the hallmarks of a creamy Willie Mitchell production for Al Green. From the drumming (and the drum sounds) up through the deep-grooving electric bass, horns, Hammond organ, and spare, precise guitar, the silky feel sets the mood for Rain’s simply beautiful melody line. Lovers of Memphis soul will recognize this affectionate tribute as a great song.

Rain excels at the slowest tempos, too. With swelling horns in the deep soul tradition, tough guitar, and a stirring vocal that moves with ease from subdued to flamboyant, “Your Love Is Not Broken” evokes the depth and searing intensity of James Brown’s devastating Live at the Apollo ballads. When she hears this song, Bettye LaVette will wish she had it first. The disc ends with “My Heart is Open,” a soul ballad with all the stunning sweep and scope of a Hollywood epic and none of the schmaltz. A Marvin Gaye vibe comes across in the song’s elegant chords as outlined by Phil Hale’s piano and strings, and in its sonics, an impossible combination of intimacy and spaciousness. Much of its success rests on Laura’s amazing performance: a masterpiece of dynamics, pure, unaffected, and deeply emotional.

I tried to describe the wondrous singing of Ms. Rain in my review of Electrified (see http://alturl.com/4t3vo) and will confine myself here to reiterating that very few vocalists are in her class when the discussion gets serious about technique, instrument, emotion, and absolute freedom of expression. Laura Rain is a real soul singer, period. She is recorded better this time out as well, with frankly incredible results. The arrangements are first-rate, and the songs extend the arc of blues and soul music in unexpected ways, while paying respect to their influences. Closer is a varied album of soul and blues that could have been made by Johnny “Guitar” Watson or Johnnie Taylor. Anyone serious about soul and blues music ought to hear this meticulously crafted, heartfelt record.

TOM HYSLOP

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.

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.

Electrified – UPDATED availability

Electrified

Laura Rain and the Caesars

Electrified

LRC, 2013

http://www.laurarain.net/

Real R&B–and I don’t mean what’s on the charts today–often seems embalmed by tradition. There’s absolutely a place for reverence and strict authenticity, but qualities like imagination and bravado seem to be in too short supply when it comes to musicians who know their history; hence the excitement when artists like Ryan Shaw, Little Jackie, Eli “Paperboy” Reed, and Ricky Fanté appear. We can add Laura Rain and the Caesars to that short list. The only thing retro about this band is the record collections I imagine Laura Rain and George Friend, who co-wrote all the material, to possess.

They have a rare ability to evoke vintage soul, funk, and R&B styles while sounding utterly fresh. The set opens with “Sunset,” a head-turning amalgam of rapid-fire lyrics, funky horns, guitar chank, and popping drums. “Bus Stop” is a slamming, Stax-inflected burner with enough energy for five hit singles. “My Love” nails a late-‘70s feel with phase-shifted guitar, a disco-fied bass line, and a smoking organ solo, but it’s smarter than anything that charted back in the day. Two favorites couldn’t be more different:  with its cool pulse and strong melody, “I Don’t Wanna Play” suggests the vibe of a lost Family Stone classic, especially when the horns, dominated by trumpet, sneak in at the halfway mark. And they don’t make them like “This Old House” any more–a shame, given its sophisticated, laid-back soulfulness (somewhat in the vein of the Grover Washington Jr.-Bill Withers hit, “Just The Two Of Us”), the jazzy octaves on guitar, and a story with a message.

Electrified includes enough bluesy fare to satisfy all but the hardest-hearted purist. The title track, a blues strut with a strip-joint vibe, features hard-riffing horns and a taut guitar solo. “No More” references Howlin’ Wolf’s hypnotic stomps, Hubert Sumlin’s slinky guitar, and John Lee Hooker’s patented stutters. Swampy guitar from the Memphis-Muscle Shoals axis, churchy organ, and a Stones-y swagger inform the deep soul ballad “Four Long Years.” The slow-burning “No Good Love” puts a dramatic, minor key funk spin on soul blues. “Lonely” is a terrific, upbeat rocker fueled by horns, powerhouse drums, and layered guitars.

The players come from the ranks of Detroit’s elite musicians. Guitarist Friend, whose long resume includes the hip blues gem Looka Here!, has toured the world with the likes of Janiva Magness and Robert Gordon. On keyboards, “Philharmonic” Phil Hale brings long experience working with artists from the worlds of funk (George Clinton), jazz (James Carter, Marcus Belgrave), and blues (Thornetta Davis). Ron Pangborn (Was/Not Was) is the perfect drummer for this group. Rick Beamon (additional drums/percussion) and three horn players–James O’Donnell (trumpet), John Paxton (trombone), and Johnny Evans (saxophones)–round out the ensemble.

The band is hot, the arrangements first-rate, but you won’t believe Laura Rain. Although classically trained as a soprano, any trace of fustiness is long gone; her singing is raw and straight-from-the-heart passionate. Lines are caressed, worried, torn apart. She has incredible range and makes effortless glides between registers. A host of shadings, from husky to raspy to nasal to full-bodied to infinite varieties of scream, and incredible melisma, are under her precise control. For all that, unlike so many latter-day divas who seem to sing everything but the note they intend to–in essence, offering effects at the expense of affect–with Laura Rain, it’s all about expressiveness, fire, and feeling.

I’m not generally given to predictions, but it is hard to think that, given half the requisite lucky break, Laura Rain won’t be a star. Her bio likens her to Chaka Khan and Aretha Franklin; I compare her to a force of nature. No one is doing what she is. Her style satisfies in spades the craving for the Big Gesture entrenched in the rock-oriented audience, without sacrificing the purposefulness and class needed to engage listeners from the soul and blues side. While the spirits of such legends as Johnny “Guitar” Watson, Sly & The Family Stone, Otis Redding, Johnnie Taylor, Prince, and the Parliament-Funkadelic coalition shine through the grooves of the Caesars’ first long-player, don’t bother dusting for prints or swabbing for DNA: Nothing here is an overt lift, nor even an unmistakable homage. Instead, while clearly informed and inspired by soul and R&B styles dating, roughly speaking, from the years between 1965 and 1985, Electrified is vital music for these times.

TOM HYSLOP

I purchased the digital files of this album at http://laurarainthecaesars.bandcamp.com/album/electrified. CDs are now available at amazon.com and cdbaby.com, while digital downloads are offered at those sites and via iTunes.

Nuestro Camino

dupree lp 05 outside

Dupree

Nuestro Camino

Public Hi-Fi Records, 2013

http://mikeflanigin.com/mikeflanigin/Dupree.html

http://www.public-hifi.com/

Nuestro Camino was made the old fashioned way. A few players, well acquainted with and sympathetic to each other, got together in a good-sounding room to run through a set of songs, and a talented producer/engineer got the results down, in real time, on tape. Certain details were, of course, changed. The session did not take place in Rudy Van Gelder’s New Jersey living room; instead, Jim Eno captured the sounds at his Public Hi-Fi Studio in Austin, Texas. The modern day Ben Dixon is drummer Kyle Thompson. In lieu of Baby Face Willette or John Patton, we hear Mike Flanigin, a Hammond organ maestro who regularly plays blues with Jimmie Vaughan at the Continental Club, and lays down serious funk behind Mike Barfield.  Rather than Grant Green, Jake Langley–whose versatility has been shown through his work  with artists as diverse as Pinetop Perkins and Cindy Cashdollar, and in his five years touring with Joey DeFrancesco–is on guitar.

Their band is called Dupree, and the music they make, refreshingly free of environmental contaminants and artificial additives formulated by modern science, is organ trio jazz in the best tradition: heavy on soul and standards; lowdown, yet often elegant; and clearly intended to move the body and spirit at least as much as the mind. Nuestro Camino is, quite simply, superb. Six songs make up the core of the album (more about that later). Greasy and propulsive, Flanigin’s “The Turtle” recreates the blue beat sound of vintage soul jazz. Thompson’s impossibly syncopated groove underpins the proceedings; Langley blends funky chording and Green-inspired single notes; and Flanigin builds tension mercilessly in his solo. The smoky blues “Malibu Classic” runs cooler, the B3 adding stabs and swells in the background as the guitar outlines the head and takes the first few lead choruses, mixing octaves, burbling note combinations, and fluid lines. Flanigin’s organ solo is full of hip rhythmic displacements and winding phrases.

Cooler yet is the moody, minor lope “All Or Nothing At All.” Thompson drops bombs throughout, giving the standard a rolling feel that sets the table for Langley’s fleet lines and some beautiful work from Flanigin, who dials in a series of fantastic tones as he plays around the melody. In the invigorating “KC,” Flanigin holds a pedal note beneath increasingly insistent lead lines to great effect; his overdriven tone is sure to induce ecstacy in B3 fanciers. Thompson’s part is hard R&B, just a funky, displaced beat away from Motown’s signature four-to-the-bar snare hits. The swinging “Leon’s Thing” motors along nicely, Flanigin’s trebly, hollow tone balancing Langley’s rounder sound. A vaguely flamenco-flavored guitar introduction eases the trio into the exotic “Moto Guzzi,” a sultry piece that evokes palm trees and tropical breezes, splitting the difference between Latin and tiki sounds.

Four bonus tracks round out the set. Langley submits “Nightcap,” a mellow, swaying meditation. Tina Brooks’s “David The King” and Horace Silver’s “Cookin’ At The Continental” shift the focus slightly, letting Dupree work out in hard bop settings. They excel here, too, playing with imagination and intensity while maintaining a solidly bluesy feel. The album’s surprise pick hit, taking a page from later developments in soul jazz, when pop tunes provided new launch pads, is the Bacharach-David composition “Close To You,” originally made famous by The Carpenters, here taken to church with beautiful tones and a subtle approach.

I began this piece by pointing out the project’s throwback vibe. Probably nothing illustrates that more clearly than the fact that the CD edition was actually an afterthought. The bonus tracks, included on the CD, are available as downloads to those who purchase the LP or 8-track versions of Dupree’s album. Yes, you read that correctly: the recording is available on 8-track tape. In any format the listener chooses, Nuestro Camino is wildly successful at extending the organ trio tradition. The album feels great and sounds incredible; its music is perfect for driving, for dim-light chilling, or for intensive listening. Dupree has it going on in every department: creativity, chops, groove, dynamics, tone, and songs. Highest recommendation.

TOM HYSLOP

I purchased this CD from Public Hi-Fi’s Web site.