2017 Blues Music Awards Submission Process

The Blues Foundation released the following information today: 2017 Blues Music Awards Nomination Process

If you are an artist, the submission page is here: http://www.shopbluesfoundation.org/blues-music-award-submission/

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Best of 2015

shawnpittman9

2015 was a good year for blues and roots music, and in particular for soul music with a blues feeling. Prompted by David Mac at Blues Junction (bluesjunctionproductions.com) and Art Tipaldi at Blues Music Magazine (bluesmusicmagazine.com), I came up with Top Ten lists for the last year. The lists you’ll see in those showcases vary slightly, as the qualifications were different. Here is a combined and expanded list that shows a more complete picture of the blues-oriented records I enjoyed most over the past year.

 

The year’s best album, in my estimation, was :

Shawn Pittman, Backslidin’ Again

The recording, with the ace rhythm section of Willie J. Campbell and Jimi Bott, is a stone killer set of real blues, with a little blues rock (done right, which virtually no one does), funk, and soul. Pittman, an Oklahoman, has a brilliant writing partner in Lewis Dickson, and includes choice covers from Ike Turner, Frankie Lee Sims, and Johnny “Guitar” Watson; his own guitar and vocals are superb, of course. The recording is available in digital format only, at iTunes and CDBaby. (That’s a sorry state of affairs, in my opinion – I’m old school and prefer hard copy.)

The rest:

Dave Alvin & Phil Alvin, Lost Time
Big Jon Atkinson, Back Down South
Sherwood Fleming, Blues Blues Blues
James Harman, Bonetime
Javier & The Innocent Sons, Born To Ramble
Will Porter, Tick Tock Tick
Igor Prado Band, Way Down South
Tad Robinson, Day Into Night
Andy Santana & The West Coast Playboys, Watch Your Step!
Wee Willie Walker, If Nothing Ever Changes

Lester Butler feat. 13, Live @ Tamines 1997
Anthony Geraci & The Boston Blues All-Stars, Fifty Shades of Blue
Nikki Hill, Heavy Hearts Hard Fists
B.B. King, Here’s One You Didn’t Know About
Barry Levenson, The Visti
Hank Mowery, Excuses Plenty
Jackie Payne, I Saw The Blues
Billy Price & Otis Clay, This Time For Real
Laura Rain & The Caesars, Gold
Mighty Mike Schermer, Blues In Good Hands
Pops Staples, Don’t Lose This
Kai Strauss, I Go By Feel
Joakim Tinderholt & His Band, You Gotta Do More
The 24th Street Wailers, Where Evil Grows

 

 

 

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

I Changed My Tune #1: Bryan Lee’s Play One For Me

bl

Like all of us, I have certain ideas about what I might, or might not, enjoy. I’m going to write about several recently released albums that were in my “not” category until I gave them a fair shake. Here, then, is the first of these second looks.

Bryan Lee

Play One For Me

Severn Records, 2013

http://www.braillebluesdaddy.com/

http://www.severnrecords.com/

I’ll be candid. I’ve never been a fan of Bryan Lee’s music. His performance at a festival I attended this summer did nothing to change my opinion: I felt that the sound of his Blues Power Band was much too rock oriented, and that Lee’s guitar playing was pushy, garden-variety blues rock, with nothing special to recommend it even to fans of that genre. It all sounded jive to me. Consequently, when I was asked to listen to Play One For Me, I resisted. The fact that Lee recorded his new CD with the great Severn house band–Robb Stupka (drums), Steve Gomes (bass), Johnny Moeller (guitar), and Kevin Anker (keys)–and guest Kim Wilson (harmonica), not to mention the fact that Chicago soul mastermind Willie Henderson sweetened the tracks with his string and horn arrangements, overcame my reluctance.

I am glad I auditioned the album. Play One For Me makes a clean break with what Lee has shown me previously, and is all the better for it. The effective soul-blues punch that opens the album sets the tone for what follows. The one-two combination starts with a close cover of George Jackson’s lilting hit, “Aretha (Sing One For Me),” and segues easily into a fine reading of Freddie King’s “It’s Too Bad (Things Are Going So Tough),” with lovely piano from Anker and crisp fills and solos by Lee, whose guitar work throughout the set is restrained and tasteful. It can be heard to excellent advantage on a slow, minor key tune from Bobby Womack’s deep catalog “When Love Begins (Friendship Ends),” where it plays starkly against the strings in a quiet storm setting. This and “You Was My Baby (But You Ain’t My Baby No More)” (a Lee original, somewhat like “Cadillac Assembly Line”) work up a real Albert King flavor.

The minor, mid-tempo swinger “Why” features a crafty vocal performance and a jazzily-phrased guitar break. “Let Me Love You Tonight” is a superb, bouncing soul mover in the Chicago style of Tyrone Davis, with intricate guitar figures, an indelible melody, and fine horns and strings straight from the Brunswick school that Henderson developed. Lee’s singing is generally quite good in this soulful setting, although sounds a bit shaky on Dennis Geyer’s slick, contemporary composition, “Straight To Your Heart.” Either “Poison” or “Evil Is Going On” might have been omitted, as the vocal melody lines of the two blues sound much alike; and despite its appealing qualities, like the envelope-filtered lead guitar, the feel of Lee’s funky “68 Years Young” is somehow off. But such minor missteps are rare. While Play One For Me may not present a strictly accurate picture of Bryan Lee’s sound, it is absolutely an enjoyable album of soul blues, and one to which I will surely return.

TOM HYSLOP

Review copy was kindly provided by Mark Pucci Media.

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.

Snap! Your Fingers

Finis Tasby - Kid Andersen

Finis Tasby & Kid Andersen

Snap! Your Fingers

Bluebeat Music, 2013

http://www.bluebeatmusic.com/product_info.php?products_id=20625

http://www.themannishboys.com/members/finistasby.html

http://deltagrooveproductions.com/music/artists/finis_tasby/main.html

Finis Tasby is a bluesman of unimpeachable qualifications. He got his start in Dallas in the ’50s, where he backed blues legends such as Lowell Fulson and Freddie King and soul stars like Clarence Carter and Z.Z. Hill, and continued in Los Angeles in the 1970s, where he worked with Big Mama Thornton and Percy Mayfield and began making records under his own name. His career stretches into the current decade; as a pivotal figure in The Mannish Boys supergroup, Tasby has recorded and performed with an ever-changing cast of all-stars.

This new release finds the great soul blues singer in the company of an entirely different set of top-flight musicians, a Bay Area contingent that includes Kedar Roy (bass) and June Core (drums); Lorenzo Farrell, Bob Welsh, and Sid Morris (keys); and Ed Early, Jack Sanford, and Terry Hanck (horns) making up the core band. Sharing space on the marquee with Tasby is Kid Andersen. Andersen is an acclaimed multi-instrumentalist, nominated in the Guitar category in the 2013 Blues Music Awards, and known for his work as resident mad scientist/genius guitar player with Rick Estrin & The Nightcats, as well as for his solo career and many side projects. He is also a respected producer with an ever-growing list of credits, and owner of Greaseland Studios, where Snap! Your Fingers was cut in 2011.

The program offers sublime soul interpretations that show originality while maintaining an authentic sound. The title track gives Joe Henderson’s original a funkier, more explicit country soul edge, replete with twangy baritone guitar, crisp fills and a snappy, chicken-picked guitar solo, strong organ, and a fine horn chart. Tasby is as wonderfully mellow and smooth as Brook Benton (no mean feat!) on a lushly arranged “Rainy Night In Georgia.” Don Covay’s hard R&B burner “People Sure Act Funny” is recast as a Ray Charles-style call-and-response number, featuring Lisa Leu Andersen as Raelette-in-chief on a duet with Tasby. Kid’s skittering guitar solo and clavinet playing are essential elements in the sound. The bouncy “Up And Down World” here, quite close to the original, is a perfect vehicle for Tasby, whose singing is often much in the style of Bobby “Blue” Bland.

Other songs are grounded in straightforward blues. Another Bland classic, “Rockin’ In The Same Old Boat,” hews close to the ominous, one-chord original, but something in the guitar parts (a wah-tinged rhythm part, a fuzz-toned lead) gives the track a fly, even pimpadelic, sheen. “Ghetto Woman,” a B.B. King title in a minor key along the lines of “Thrill Is Gone,” flows with cool elegance. In Z.Z. Hill’s “Don’t Make Me Pay,” Roy’s solid bass line and Core’s brilliant drumming produce a tough bottom end, accented by Morris’s Wurlitzer electric piano, Farrell’s organ, and Andersen’s trebly, stinging guitar. An incredibly loose “Blue Shadows” (the horns sound like they’re just blowing) is held together by Bob Welch’s piano, Farrell’s organ, and a solid rhythm. Tasby’s vocal here is even more than usually charismatic (and reminiscent of Lowell Fulson’s), and guest guitarist Elvin Bishop turns in a beautiful, very conversationally phrased solo. A quiet, nuanced “Worried Life Blues,” marked by Andersen’s tightrope-walking guitar break, leads into the hard-swinging closer, “Thank You Baby,” another great number in which horns, guitar, and keys take turns at center stage.

The song selection is excellent, the ensemble playing outstanding, and Tasby–masterful, gritty, and expressive–is singing at the height of his powers. Snap! Your Fingers qualifies as essential listening for blues and soul fans. Beyond hearing and enjoying the music, buying this CD is important for another reason. Half of the proceeds (yes, an incredible 50%) from the sale of this album go directly to Finis Tasby, who is recovering from a recent stroke.

TOM HYSLOP

I purchased this CD from Bluebeat Music, where it is exclusively available. Thanks and respect to Charlie Lange for proving yet again that he is as great a friend to musicians as he is to discerning listeners.

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.

Days Like This

Valori

Linda Valori

Days Like This

LeArt World Music, 2013

www.lindavaloriofficial.com/

http://www.leartproduction.com/en

The Italian singer Linda Valori has a big, dramatic voice. She can generate a brassy roar, or dial down to an introspective level. For her new project, Valori traveled to Chicago to work with producer and guitarist Larry Skoller. In addition to a basic guitar-bass-drums rhythm section, the instrumental lineup features keys, percussion, harmonica, and a horn section of trumpet, tenor saxophone, and baritone sax. The resulting album, Days Like This, is an interesting, occasionally innovative set, heavy on classic R&B given a contemporary shine, with some straightforward blues along the way.

Where Van Morrison’s original of the title cut was leisurely soul, Valori’s supercharged version is upbeat, with an electrifying horn chart and an irresistible combination of drum pattern, keyboards, and vibes straight out of a Motown bag. Ike Turner fans will appreciate the love shown the late bandleader, whose catalog is twice called on, for the shuffling “The Way You Love Me” and the exotic “I Idolize You,” in which an edgy solo by guest guitarist Mike Wheeler cuts through the track’s urban shimmer, which, reminiscent as it is of some of the B.B. King-Crusaders collaborations, sounds slightly dated.

A solid trio of songs closes the long-player. A version of Janis Joplin’s “Move Over” sacrifices some grit but gains in percolating funkiness, due largely to Billy Dickens’s electric bass. Punchy horns and some stinging lead guitar from Wheeler make for a splendid recording of Bobby Bland’s “I Smell Trouble” on which Valori is appropriately tough. “If I Can’t Have You” is arranged to retain the raunchy flavor of the immortal original, with its talkative saxophones recreated by Doug Corcoran and Marqueal Jordan. Valori gamely does her best with Etta James’s part, and though she can’t match the original for raw sensuality, acquits herself well. Mike Avery is impressively smooth in the duet’s Harvey Fuqua role.

The prime tracks come in the middle of the program, with a take on Ray Charles’s “Your Love Is So Doggone Good” that evokes the sultry feel Etta James brought to her reading of “You Can Leave Your Hat On.” Also superb is Valori’s cover of Deitra Farr’s exultant, upbeat “It’s My Time.” She deftly handles the acrobatic melody and quick changes, and the band is right on time with the soul blues arrangement, highlighted by Corcoran’s memorable trumpet solo.

The sole misstep is a fine, creative reggae arrangement of The Pretenders’ “Don’t Get Me Wrong” that simply doesn’t fit into the setlist’s flow. Overcoming one potential hurdle, Valori sings largely without accent throughout the album, though a detectable (not distracting) trace creeps in at the slowest tempos, as in the Bobby Charles ballad “The Jealous Kind.” Consider Days Like This and its updated gloss on traditional R&B an enjoyable calling card, introducing Linda Valori to U.S. listeners as a capable singer of technique, passion, and taste.

TOM HYSLOP

Review copy provided by Frank Roszak Radio Promotions.

On The Verge

on the verge

The Fabulous Thunderbirds

On The Verge

Severn Records, 2013

http://fabulousthunderbirds.com/

http://severnrecords.com/

As the Fabulous Thunderbirds near their 40th anniversary, the only constant in the band’s lineup is its front man, Kim Wilson. The extraordinary singer and harmonica wizard has his pick of the very best players, from among whom he chooses exceedingly wisely, and clearly exercises absolute control over the unit’s vision and sound, which has remained for the most part very consistent through years of personnel changes. Until now. On their new album, the Fabulous Thunderbirds expand the flirtation with soul music that provided a hit in the 1980s (their cover of Sam & Dave’s “Wrap It Up”) into a full-fledged courtship. The band’s once stripped-down sound is fleshed out with the addition of keyboards, backing vocals, percussion, and a four-piece horn section, and the ten new songs comprising On The Verge, most of them written by Wilson, with help from guest keyboardist Kevin Anker and Severn regulars David Earl and Steve Gomes, explore soul and R&B from a number of angles.

Wilson sings for all he is worth on the opener, “I Want To Believe,” a midtempo number with a determinedly positive message and an insistent, Stax-y push-pull feel reminiscent of the funkiest Otis Redding and Staple Singer grooves. Bassist Randy Bermudes’ terrific “Runnin’ From The Blues” gets a country soul treatment much in the vein of Joe Simon’s immortal “The Chokin’ Kind,” pulled together with twangy, deep-set guitar hooks. “Hold Me” is in the vein of artists like Clarence Carter. The interesting Kevin Anker piano figure that appears in the introduction and during the choruses lacks a dominant tonality, and is a bit unsettling in this traditional Southern soul context.

Several dark threads run through On The Verge. Over a slinky, minor key groove that tops the feel of Bobby Bland’s “I Wouldn’t Treat A Dog” with some special O.V. Wright sauce, “Too Much Water” chronicles the end of a relationship. The album’s closer, “Lonely Highway,” is an excellent slow number with moody horns, again reminiscent of O.V.’s Hi Records sides. And while many blues have dealt with poverty, few have presented the situation as starkly as “Do You Know Who I Am,” a stately soul ballad that calls for understanding and help from the vantage of the economically deprived, unemployed, and homeless.

“Got To Bring It With You” serves up dirty funk that marries wah-wah guitar to a horn chart that stepped straight out of an Al Green or O.V. session. Its simple guitar solo is more thematic than improvisational. “That’s The Way We Roll” is even more lowdown–this is heavy, trailer park funk, baby, with a slow-dragging, syncopated groove. Wilson blows minimalistic, distorted harp, and sings through the harp microphone for extra grease. At the other end of the R&B spectrum, “Lovin’ Time” has a pop-inflected melody that befits the lyric’s fond reminiscences. Smooth electric piano and organ, hand drums, and the airy, interlocking guitars form a distinctive arrangement. Gomes’s “Diamonds Won’t Kiss You Back,” with its intricate guitar and bass parts, catchy, riffing horns, and beautiful, melodic vocal line, is sweet soul directly from the Chicago school.

One observation: Although The Fabulous Thunderbirds’ last two lineups have featured some of most exciting guitar players on the planet, Wilson has seemed oddly reluctant to let them loose on record (this is emphatically not the case in concert). Nick Curran and Kirk Fletcher were largely indistinguishable from each other on Painted On, and while Johnny Moeller and Mike Keller’s guitar parts are crucial to the new CD’s sound (and often quite memorable), virtually no lead guitar can be heard, even though this style of music can certainly lends itself to instrumental breaks–just listen to Stax-era Albert King, anything Little Milton cut after the mid-1960s, or recent albums by, for instance, John Németh. Wilson himself barely cuts loose on his instrument. I’ll extend this line of thinking to include the rhythm section: Jason Moeller, one of the world’s premier shuffle drummers, doesn’t get to drive one home. While I can appreciate the focus on the songwriting and singing, it seems a shame that Wilson passed up the opportunity to record this hot lineup really showing its stuff.

That may well be a churlish attitude, as the album sounds fine the way it has been delivered. While there is the risk that On The Verge will alienate longtime fans who prefer to hear the tough, butt-rockin’ blues on which the T-Birds built their reputation, its tilt to the soulful side of the blues makes for a cohesive and successful album. Its polish, inherent tunefulness, and creamy feel should win the Fabulous Thunderbirds additional fans.

TOM HYSLOP

Review copy provided by Mark Pucci Media.