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.

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Blues In My Soul

Blues In My Soul

LURRIE BELL

Blues In My Soul

Delmark, 2013

http://lurrie.com/

http://www.delmark.com/

Lurrie Bell is the blues. Blues by birth, as son of Carey Bell and part of the Harrington family that includes Eddy Clearwater and Atomic-H label owner Houston Harrington; blues by circumstance, through his extensively chronicled personal struggles and tragedies; and blues by avocation, as perhaps the greatest bluesman in the generation after artists like Clearwater, James Cotton, Buddy Guy, Eddie C. Campbell, and Byther Smith (and possibly even the last true bluesman, defined, strictly and correctly, as a cultural identifier, rather than used, loosely and incorrectly, to label any musician who plays blues-based music). After a pair of independently released albums, Bell returns to the Delmark Records fold for Blues In My Soul. The first-rate band includes Melvin Smith (Koko Taylor, Magic Slim) on bass; the excellent, widely recorded Roosevelt Purifoy (keyboards); the great Willie “The Touch” Hayes (drums); and Matthew Skoller (harmonica). Producer Dick Shurman has fulfilled his role adroitly, drawing inspired performances from all, and guiding Bell to a set list that suits the artist to a T.

Many of the songs are naturally enough drawn from the Chicago repertoire. Blues In My Soul offers indisputable testimony to the variety inherent in that tradition. There’s a terrific selection of uptempo numbers. Purifoy, Skoller, and Bell solo over the driving boogie of “I Just Keep Loving Her,” an early Little Walter side, and one not often covered. The J.L. Smith rarity “If It’s Too Late” is an even better find. The band maintains the essential, locomotive feel behind Jimmy Rogers’s “Going Away Baby,” and Big Bill’s “I Feel So Good” receives a sprightly workout with key contributions from Skoller and Hayes.

Easing up a bit on the accelerator, Bell digs deep into a “She’s A Good ’Un” that is every bit as powerful, and more deliberate, than the familiar version by Otis Rush, and gives up a mid-tempo shuffle in honor of Magic Slim, who died the day the band laid down “24 Hour Blues.” Careful listening to the guitar break reveals the jaw-dropping mastery of Bell’s playing–an excellence even more incredible for its subtlety, for there are no flashy, rock star moves here, only perfection in rhythm, touch, note choice, phrasing, and feel.

As always, Lurrie excels on the slow side of the blues, where few living players are as pensive or able to dig as deep beneath the skin of a song, and where his singing nearly always comes from a higher plane of inspiration. Bell turns his attention with laser focus to a gritty reading of Junior Wells’s “’Bout The Break Of Day,” a.k.a. “Early In The Morning”; “My Little Machine,” taken slower than the Jimmy Rogers original; and Otis Spann’s “Blues Never Die.” His most expressive performances come in Eddie Boyd’s “Just The Blues,” taken at a dirge-like pace, which features a lovely piano solo and a time-stopping guitar break; and the title track, a Bell original, with a chilling sound from the band, an intense vocal, and powerful dynamics. With these two numbers, Bell could single-handedly keep alive the endangered sub-genre of minor key slow blues.

The program contains a few outliers. Bell steps out on his “South Side To Riverside,” a chunky funk instrumental with a stuttering rhythm à la “Killing Floor,” a tough organ solo, and JB-esque horn stabs by Chris Neal and Mark Hiebert (saxophones) and Marques Carroll (trumpet, arranger), who also perform on the swinging opener “Hey, Hey Baby,” one of two T-Bone Walker numbers (the blasting “T-Bone Blues Special” is the other) that, Chicago-ized, prove to be right in Bell’s wheelhouse.

Although Bell grew up in the presence of some of the greatest musicians in Chicago, surprisingly little of their influence can be heard in his playing, with the exception of his most important mentor, the iconic Eddie Taylor. Lurrie’s lead guitar style, like that of so many players, is most deeply indebted to two other sources: B.B. and Albert King. Anyone who believes that to be a handicap probably has not listened closely enough to the music of those titans, and certainly has not paid enough attention to the unmatched intensity, imagination, and creativity of his playing. The most serious blues guitarist of our time, Bell is indeed the blues. Blues In My Soul is highly recommended.

TOM HYSLOP

CD for review was provided by Delmark Records.