Top Ten of 2013…Plus

Ordinarily I resist making Best Of lists, except mentally, in part because I don’t view music as a competition, and in part because my choices undergo frequent change. But when David Mac asked me to contribute a Top Ten to his Blues Junction site, I gave it my best shot. My choices and those of a number of other listeners were revealed here:

http://bluesjunctionproductions.com/daves_top_ten_list_of_top_ten_lists

The ten CDs I listed as my favorites of the year:

1)    Magic Sam – Live at the Avant Garde, June 22, 1968 (Delmark)

2)    Holland K. Smith – Cobalt (Ellersoul)

3)    Ari Borger & Igor Prado -Lowdown Boogie (Chico Blues)

4)    Nikki Hill – Here’s Nikki Hill (Deep Fried Records)

5)    John Primer & Bob Corritore – Knockin’ Around These Blues (Delta Groove Productions)

6)    Trickbag – Trickbag with Friends Vol. 1 (Magic)

7)    4 Jacks – Deal With It (Ellersoul)

8)    Lou Pride – Ain’t No Love in This House (Severn)

9)    Barrelhouse Chuck & Kim Wilson – Driftin’ From Town to Town (The Sirens)

10)   Finis Tasby / Kid Andersen – Snap Your Fingers (Bluebeat Music)

In making the list, I initially wrote down the first group of CDs that came to mind. There were more than 10. Forced to make cuts, I reluctantly omitted the next group–but any of them could have been in my top 10. Here, then, are the rest of my favorites of 2013, in no particular order…

Lurrie Bell, Blues in My Soul (Delmark)

Laura Rain & the Caesars, Electrified (LRC)

The James Hunter Six, Minute By Minute (Fantasy)

Candye Kane with Laura Chavez, Coming Out Swingin’ (Vizztone)

Adrianna Marie & Her Groovecutters, Double Crossing Blues

Sugaray Rayford, Dangerous (Delta Groove Productions)

Birdlegg, Birdlegg (Dialtone)

Don Leady, Hillbilly Boogie Surfin’ Blues

Gene Taylor, Roadhouse Memories (Bluelight Records)

Jake LaBotz, Get Right (Charnel House)

Tinsley Ellis, Get It! (Heartfixer)

What a great year for blues, soul, and real rock ‘n’ roll music!

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Magic Sam • Live at the Avant Garde 1968

Magic Sam

MAGIC SAM

Live at the Avant Garde

Delmark Records, 2013

The new Magic Sam album is outrageously great. I would say the same about virtually any other Sam Maghett recording–he never made a bad one, and that includes not only his studio work but the four live albums already available (five if one counts the solo house party set Give Me Time), which seem to have been taped almost by chance. Live at the Avant Garde is different in that it was recorded, at a Milwaukee appearance in 1968, to the highest standard of an amateur engineer. Though I had heard at least one of the earlier live shows in private circulation before it received its official (or semi-official) release, the existence of the Avant Garde tape came as a total surprise. Mindful of the adage about gift horses, I don’t question why it has become available after remaining a secret for so long. I am merely grateful, and deeply.

Unlike the other known live recordings of Sam, Avant Garde’s sound is clear and present, and the mix is fine (the set’s engineer and producer Jim Charne details the recording’s technical aspects in his liner notes). Sam’s voice and guitar are out front and crystal-clear, and Bob Richey’s drums are crisp as one could wish. Another reviewer has stated that Mojo Elem’s electric bass is inaudible. Not so. On my copy, it’s plenty loud enough for any blues band, provided that your taste has not been formed by rock soundmen, club DJs, or certain latter-day “blues” CD mixes. I’d also observe that Elem’s no-frills approach makes a better foundation for Sam than Bruce Barlow’s busy playing on Live 1969 • Raw Blues and the Ann Arbor sides.

Sam himself is in top form. His was one of the most intense and identifiable voices in the blues, with a resonant, declamatory style marked by an unusual reliance on tremolo (volume variation) rather than vibrato (pitch variation). In this show he sounds totally at ease, but with no diminution of his power. He is masterful. His guitar work? Hold on, baby! A red Epiphone Riviera into a Fender Twin Reverb (as shown in the cover photo, taken at the gig) yields beautiful tone, and the singular drive and depth that mark every note Sam ever committed to tape are all vividly present. A couple of hesitations and a slip of the fingers here and there are, I think, the only (barely noticeable) imperfections in an otherwise confident, peak form demonstration of Sam’s patented rhythm-to-lead playing. His creativity and energy are boundless; even the songs that appear in multiple versions across the live albums are packed with excitement and fresh ideas.

The playlist, pretty typical of Sam’s live recordings, contains a variety of material intended to entertain. Sam’s ‘50s classics, those sinuous, minor-flavored, tremolo-laden sides that defined the West Side style for all time, are represented by “Bad Luck Blues” (originally “Out Of Bad Luck”), with Lowell Fulson’s “It’s All Your Fault Baby” and Jimmy McCracklin’s “Every Night, Every Day” performed in the same framework as a bonus. The innovative output of his two albums for Delmark is present in “That’s All I Need,” which retains its lilting, Sam Cooke flavor even at an accelerated tempo, and by the driving boogaloo “You Belong To Me.” Over the remainder of the 16 tracks, Sam interprets the work of heroes Bobby Bland (a live-wire “Don’t Want No Woman”), Muddy Waters (“Still A Fool”–harrowing–and “Hoochie Coochie Man”), Jimmy Rogers (“That’s All Right”), and B.B. King (a brilliant “Hully Gully Twist” and a loose “I Need You So Bad”), and contemporaries Freddy King (“San-Ho-Zay”), Junior Wells (a liquid “Come On In This House”), and Otis Rush, whose “All Your Love (I Miss Loving)” is a rare and special treat. Junior Parker’s Memphis stomp “Feelin’ Good” is here, as is the instrumental it inspired, Sam’s incredible, show-stopping boogie “Lookin’ Good.”

Although Sam offers some good-natured patter and gives shout-outs to the taper and the club owners, the well-lubricated camaraderie, self-promotion, and enthusiastic banter heard in the home turf Alex Club shows are subdued by comparison in the coffee house environment. But the musical aspects of the performance are unaffected. I have eagerly, and repeatedly, listened to everything that has come out on Magic Sam, regardless of its audio fidelity, and Sam has never let me down: He always brought it. Sam died too young and not often enough recorded. Improbably, given its late release, Live at the Avant Garde is all cream; nothing about it asks the listener to settle for anything less than the best. And Magic Sam was the best. His unsurpassed charisma and talent continue to thrill, 45 years later. Live at the Avant Garde is a dream come true for fans of electric blues in general and Magic Sam in particular.

TOM HYSLOP

I bought this album from bluebeatmusic.com and received this review copy from the label.

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.

Just Magic: The Magic Slim Story

just-magic

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.