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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Best of 2014

David Mac again invited me to join other contributors in submitting a selection of my ten favorite CDs of 2014 to his fabulous site Blues Junction (http://bluesjunctionproductions.com/daves_top_nine_list_of_top_ten_lists). After much agonizing decisionmaking, I delivered this list:

index

John Németh, Memphis Grease (Blue Corn)
Sean Costello, In the Magic Shop (VizzTone)
Dave Alvin & Phil Alvin, Common Ground (YepRoc)
The Mannish Boys, Wrapped Up and Ready (Delta Groove)
Mark Hummel, The Hustle is Really On (Electro-Fi)
Denilson Martins, Big D (Chico Blues)
Nathan James, Natural Born That Way (Sacred Cat)
Bob Corritore, Taboo (YepRoc)
Raoul and the Big Time, Hollywood Boulevard (Big Time)
Sugar Ray & the Bluetones, Living Tear to Tear (Severn)

Making the final cuts really came down, in many cases, to a coin toss. So, for the record, here are the rest of the best of 2014 – I daresay every bit as good as my top 10. And I’m certain I overlooked some titles I ought to have remembered.

Robin Banks, Modern Classic (self)

Big Jon Atkinson, Boogie With You Baby (Bluebeat)

Al Blake, Blues According to Blake (Soul Sanctuary)

Nick Moss Band, Time Ain’t Free (Blue Bella)

Laura Rain and the Caesars, Closer (LRC)

Brian Carpy, Rockin’ Bollocks (Bamboo)

Magic Slim & the Teardrops, Pure Magic (Wolf)

Loot Rock Gang, That’s Why I’ve Got To Sing (Big Muddy)

Madison Slim, Close…But No Cigar

Jim Suhler, Panther Burn (Underworld)

Tony Vega Band, Shakin’ At The Easy! (Lucha Libre)

Kai Strauss, Electric Blues (Continental Record Services)

Jim Liban with the Joel Paterson Trio, I Say What I Mean (Ventrella)

Aki Kumar, Don’t Hold Back (Greaseland)

Rick Estrin & The Nightcats, You Asked For It…Live! (Alligator)

Strong

Strong

Billy Price

Strong

DixieFrog, 2013

http://billyprice.com/

www.bluesweb.com/

Billy Price should be considered a national treasure for keeping his brand of soul music alive and relevant, far beyond his home base of Pittsburgh. He has been singing professionally since the early 1970s, first with Roy Buchanan, and later with the Rhythm Kings and the Keystone Rhythm Band. Following an excellent pair of albums in which the French guitarist Fred Chapellier shared the marquee, Price has just released a new CD with his name alone at the top of the bill, in collaboration with his longtime support unit, the Billy Price Band, with some very special guests. Strong doesn’t begin to describe it.

Chapellier co-composed three tracks. “Can’t Leave It Alone” is a hard-driving number from the intersection of blues and R&B, in the manner of early-‘60s sides by Junior Wells or Willie Cobbs. The Nighthawks’ Mark Wenner blows tough harmonica and trades phrases with guitarist Steve Delach during the middle instrumental section. “Sweet Soul Music” lives up to its name with a breezy, lilting feel closer to Tyrone Davis’s immortal Brunswick sides than to the frenetic Arthur Conley classic that shares the title. Price’s testifying rides atop a bouncing groove; perfectly charted horns and Chapellier’s melodic, yet biting, guitar solo make this a standout. “Let’s Go For A Ride,” arranged with a terrific second-line beat, a rowdy horn chart, and Professor Longhair-inspired piano from Jimmy Britton, is pure New Orleans.

Britton is Price’s writing partner on the other originals. “Gotta Be Strong,” another sweet-sounding tune, is given weight by dramatic horn swells and a lyric, firmly delivered, that insists on perseverance and optimism. The horn section opens “Diggin’ A Hole” with the sultry swagger of a ’70s Hi Records hit before the arrangement tilts toward a funky, roadhouse blend of styles. The elegant ballad “The Lucky One” is another co-write with Britton, who builds a majestic piano chord progression. Tenor saxophonist Eric DeFade adds crucial fills and a spot-on solo, and Price’s vocal is outstanding, now and again slipping into falsetto to accentuate the deep emotion. Price and the band turn on a love light with “I’ve Got Love On My Mind,” the explosive, gospel-inflected track that closes the set.

Three covers round out the album. A fine “Driving Wheel,” funkified with clavinet and organ, and beefed up with heavy-riffing horns, shows where a tight soul outfit can take the blues. Bobby Byrd’s “Never Get Enough” is an absolute, super bad blast, with Bob Matchett (trombone) stepping forward in the Fred Wesley role, and Price, urged on by the interjections of the Nighthawks’ drummer Mark Stutso–appearing here as James Brown–displaying unbridled enthusiasm. A sublime reading of Little Johnny Taylor’s immortal slow blues “Part Time Love” finds Price singing with great force and feeling. He has to, in order to stand up to the jagged, intense guitar of guest Monster Mike Welch.

The Billy Price Band today sounds better than ever, playing with soul, maturity, and taste. Gone are the rock inflections heard on previous outings: Delach here never overstates his case, not even when soloing. Economical, punchy, and present, his playing on Strong marks a modern gloss on the spirit and feel of the genre’s defining stylists–players like Cropper, Johnson, Womack, and Hinton. And Price is at his peak. Although perhaps not blessed with the incredible instrument of his avowed favorite, O.V. Wright, Price has great technique and enthusiasm, and his voice has enough of that frayed quality so essential for soul singers; unerring instincts make him a most effective communicator.  The pitch-perfect Strong ranks among Price’s finest achievements, and ought to be remembered when year-end best lists are made.

TOM HYSLOP

Review copy provided by the artist.

Independently Blue

1364-Cover

The Duke Robillard Band

with special guest Monster Mike Welch

Independently Blue

Stony Plain Records,  2013

http://dukerobillard.com/

http://www.stonyplainrecords.com/Web/artist.asp?id=418#1364

From his beginnings in Roomful of Blues through various incarnations as a bandleader­–never mind an unparalleled resume of projects as sideman or producer that would be enviable, even legendary, on its own–Duke Robillard has set and exceeded the highest standards of taste, tone, and style. It seems that Robillard has been on a hot (or, more accurately, a hotter) streak of late, with a jumping brace of blues albums in Stomp! The Blues Tonight and Low Down and Tore Up; a jazzy trio project, Wobble Walking; exciting production work for Sunny Crownover, Joe Louis Walker, and others; and an upcoming tour as part of Bob Dylan’s band.

His latest album extends that run of successes. Augmenting his rhythm section (Bruce Bears, keyboards; Brad Hallen, bass; Mark Teixeira, drums–a trio that seems as telepathically linked as it is stylistically unlimited) is guest guitarist Monster Mike Welch, a fellow New Englander who regularly gigs as one of Sugar Ray Norcia’s Bluetones–that is, when he is not recording albums as a front man (I count five or six to date). Robillard maneuvers this superb and sympathetic cast through and around a dizzying scope of blues, jazz, and roots music on Independently Blue.

The album opens with two of three compositions penned by Robillard’s former Roomful bandmate, Al Basile. “I Wouldn’t-a Done That” is a swaggering shuffle with a pair of snarling, tangled-in-barbed-wire solos. Believe it or not, the tune modulates into different keys at least twice, an exceedingly rare move in the blues that makes for a very cool and compelling structure. “Below Zero” is a bluesy, moderately paced rocker that rides out on a duel between Duke’s bright single-note lines and Monster Mike’s bassy, fuzzed-out licks.

This friendly competition continues in the next track, Welch’s hard-hitting instrumental “Stapled To The Chicken’s Back,’” a Texas-flavored shuffle that arrives loaded with impressive guitar breaks. Chicken-picked single notes and double-stops practically pop out of the speaker during Duke’s solo, which slips easily between blues, country, and jazz feels. Welch’s darker-toned choruses are slinkier and recall the no-prisoners attack and idiosyncratic phrasing of Albert Collins. Duke picks up on this biting approach and returns it during the thrilling back-and-forth exchange that follows the individual solos.

A bouncing roots-rocker, “Laurene” expresses Duke’s devotion to Mrs Robillard, and sports a pair of distinctive rhythm guitar approaches as well as two wickedly pointed, Chuck Berry-inspired solos. It sounds like Howlin’ Wolf’s “Evil” provided the inspiration for the arrangement behind Basile’s “I’m Still Laughing.” The trebly lead guitar part is laden with a menacingly heavy vibrato. Welch’s “This Man, This Monster” begins as a laid-back, jazzy after-hours stroll, which escalates as more pointed, bluesier tones and lines overshadow the mellow mood, then develops a languid, almost Hawaiian feel: What an incredible ride in five minutes’ time!

Several sides of the extended range of Robillard’s imagination are on display. “Groovin’ Slow” rides a Southern soul groove reminiscent of “Ode To Billie Joe.” The relaxed but deeply funky middle solo seems perfect for this sort of Muscle Shoals feel, as do the jazzier leads in the outro. “You Won’t Ever” is a different kind of animal, opening with a Latin-inflected trumpet line over a minor key lope before moving into something I think of as Love Boat soul: a little like an arrangement from Willie Mitchell’s Royal studio in Memphis, with pop accents in the vocal melody, and a fleet, George Benson-esque guitar ride out.

The band reaches back to the 1920s with a cover of Red Allen’s “Patrol Wagon.” Doug Woolverton’s trumpet and Billy Novick’s clarinet snake around each other, evoking the feel of vintage jazz records, while Welch waits until the song’s end to uncoil an extended solo that’s mellow but swinging, and oh-so-finely syncopated. Robillard’s bluesy yet unique “Moongate” serves as the album’s centerpiece, midway through the program. A hip arrangement and canny production ideas, like balancing one tremoloed guitar against another, far-off and heavily reverbed–and layering others atop that instrumental bed–lend an ethereal, evocative air, in keeping with its lyric about a Chinese garden, to the track, which would seem out of place either leading off or closing the album, yet is sublime where it sits.

Still, the heart of every Duke Robillard project is the blues, and here the best comes last, in “If This Is Love,” a hard-hitting number based loosely on Otis Rush’s “Right Place, Wrong Time.” Robillard’s lyric and singing are impressively strong, and Welch absolutely kills it with a stunning lead guitar part, marked by angular phrasing, cutting bends, and a disconcertingly aggressive attack. Go to the head of the class, son! It marks a fitting close to the latest Duke Robillard Band long-player. Savvy music fans have long recognized Duke Robillard as the go-to guy for inventive and pitch-perfect playing in virtually every blues-based style of American music, and Independently Blue demonstrates again his mastery as bandleader and producer, his excellence as a performer, and his stature as a visionary creator of American music.

 TOM HYSLOP

Review copy provided by Mark Pucci Media.