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:

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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.

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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:

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

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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.

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

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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.

Just Magic: The Magic Slim Story

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Just Magic: The Magic Slim Story

Peter Carlson, producer & director

Sagebrush Productions, Inc., 2013

http://www.sagebrushproductions.com/blues.html

The new documentary Just Magic: The Magic Slim Story provides as thorough an overview of the life and achievements of Morris Holt as you are likely to find. Among those interviewed are Magic Slim himself; his sister, Lucinda; his manager, Marty Salzman, and his road manager, Michael Blakemore; and fellow musicians like Lonnie Brooks, Dr. John, and Koko Taylor.

The film covers Slim’s entire career, beginning with his early years in Torrance and Grenada, Mississippi, including his introduction to music in church; the cotton mill accident that put an end to his piano-playing; and his first attempts at learning to play a home-made one-string diddley bow guitar. Slim’s friendship with Magic Sam and his abortive first move to Chicago in the 1950s are discussed, along with his subsequent return to Mississippi, where he assembled a band by teaching his brothers Nick and Lee Baby to play. His friend and bandmate Sam Wooden recounts stories of gigging around Greenville, Itta Bena, and Tchula with Magic Slim’s Night Rockers.

Slim tells of his return in the 1960s to Chicago, where he worked day jobs while developing a sound of his own; recounts how he inherited both the Teardrops (from Robert “Mr Pitiful” Perkins) and a regular gig at Florence’s on the South Side of Chicago (from Hound Dog Taylor); and talks about the dangers of the violent club scene. He and Salzman discuss how Slim’s popularity grew internationally, including his key role in introducing the blues to South America, and his numerous honors, including multiple Blues Music Awards. It is instructive to hear Slim break down the blues he plays into two basic styles–uptempo blues (“You can swing dance to it”), and slow blues (“The barrelhouse blues”)–and to demonstrate them on his unamplified Fender Jazzmaster guitar.

None of this information will be newsworthy to anyone who has followed Slim’s career, and certainly not to anyone who has read the in-depth profiles of Magic Slim in Blues Revue or Living Blues. But it is most enjoyable to watch him tell the stories in his own words during two sessions that appear to have been conducted perhaps six and twelve years ago. His immense warmth and humor are very much apparent, as he is obviously at ease with his interviewer. This is an up-close look at the real Magic Slim that not every club-goer would have had the chance to see. (Be sure to watch to the end, when Slim really lets down his guard.)

I would have liked to hear Slim talk about his close relationship with the Teardrops’ first guitarist, Daddy Rabbit. It also seems odd that Slim’s lengthy association with the Zoo Bar, in Lincoln, Nebraska, where he lived for many years, goes unmentioned. Interviews with some other individuals close to the man, such as Jim O’Neal or Dick Shurman, both respected blues historians who produced records on Slim; Edward Chmelewski and Jerry Del Giudice of Blind Pig Records; Steve Cushing, host of Blues Before Sunrise and the Teardrops’ drummer in the 1970s; or Slim’s longtime bandleaders, John Primer and Jon McDonald, would perhaps have provided additional insight. Musician and club owner Bob Corritore and label head Hannes Folterbauer have also written eloquently on the record about the importance and beauty of Slim’s art, but are not heard from here. Carlson’s use of archival photographs is good, but it is a truism that in the internet age, rare or unseen images are hard to come by. The four or five live numbers included provide a respectable sampling of Magic Slim’s work, from a show in Brazil circa 1990 where he plays the introduction to a Jimmy Reed song on harmonica (!), through a raw (slightly out-of tune), rare solo performance of Muddy Waters’s “You Can’t Lose What You Never Had” at the 2001 Chicago Blues Festival, to a couple of songs from the Teardrops’ triumphant performance at the Blues Music Awards later in the decade. While these songs are presented in their entirety, this is a documentary, and so inevitably during the performances, the visual cuts away to a talking head and the sound is brought down to background level. It would have been nice to have the unedited footage included as bonus material (there is none).

Of course, those are wishes, not complaints, and I am grateful to have the relatively comprehensive portrait Just Magic: The Magic Slim Story gives us. As the film winds down, Slim says he would like to be remembered as a man who went to work every day of his life playing the blues–“a bluesman.” Superimposed on the screen are various quotations included in his press materials, including the often-recycled line from my own review of Scufflin’ in Blues Revue: “Whoever the house band in Blues Heaven may be, even money says they’re wearing out Magic Slim records, trying to get that Teardrops sound down cold.” Of course, since February of this year, Slim has been there to rehearse them himself. Just Magic is a worthwhile and welcome tribute to the man, one that his many fans will want to own.

TOM HYSLOP

I purchased this DVD from Sagebrush Productions.