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.

Will Porter, Tick Tock Tick

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Will Porter

Tick Tock Tick

Gramofono Sound (U.S.), dist. Kent Records (U.K.)

This superb album is too good to remain under wraps. My full-length review will appear soon in Blues Music Magazine. Here is a preview.

 

Will Porter’s singing is so natural as to make his considerable technique transparent, even invisible. Leveraging valuable contributions from Dr. John, the Womack Brothers, Bettye LaVette, and others, and making the most of producer Wardell Quezergue’s arrangements, Tick Tock Tick catches our attention with swaggering soul and jagged funk, and draws us in with thoughtful blues and lush, quietly devastating ballads. This is timeless stuff, the perfect restorative for listeners out of patience with an endless stream of showy but ultimately shallow music. Porter has made a record full of soul and heart that grown-up human beings will respond to and love.

 

 

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

 

 

 

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)

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

A.C. Myles • Reconsider Me

Myles

A.C. Myles

Reconsider Me

2014

http://acmyles.com/

 

Concentrating on his solo career after some very respectable positions as sideman, including work with Fillmore Slim and a stint with John Németh, the talented Northern California-based singer and guitarist A.C. Myles is set to release his second solo album (after a live record, now out of print) very soon. I was privileged to hear an advance copy of Reconsider Me!

Produced by Kid Andersen at his Greaseland studio, Reconsider Me! spotlights Myles’s tough guitar playing and devastating singing. Its playlist is designed to touch on some of Myles’s influences and professional associates. Nearly half of the set consists of rockers. “Livin’ A Lie” owes much to Johnny Winter’s flamboyant 1970s recordings. Interesting sections and tempo shifts give the song a complex, hard edge that is softened, slightly, by an anthemic, radio-ready chorus. On the pumping boogie “Three Ways To Fall,” Myles evokes the sound of Winter’s Alligator period, positively nailing his slide guitar style and vocal mannerisms. The swaggering rocker “Call ‘em All Baby” is marked by hammering piano and sweet backing vocals over the chorus, with harmonized lead guitars emphasizing its unmistakable inspiration in Southern rock. Myles turns in a fierce and funky version of Rory Gallagher’s “Do You Read Me,” and transforms “Rock My Soul” into something a bit less country-fried than Elvin Bishop’s original, tipping a hat to the revival-tent enthusiasm of Delaney & Bonnie and Friends and including some very Clapton-esque guitar playing. Myles’s powerful voice is well suited to these rocking numbers, and–to judge by his enthusiastic screams–he has a blast singing them.

Blues are amply represented on Reconsider Me! Myles adapts Fillmore Slim’s superbad version of “Blue Monday” in an arrangement built on percolating drums and bass, organ and funky keyboards, and wah-wah guitar. His vocal is lovely and soulful, the guitar solo and chicken-picked fills perfectly conceived. Myles’s guitar absolutely stings on the gritty “Queen Bee,” with rubbery bends, wild double-stops, and killer instinct straight out of ‘60s-era Buddy Guy. “Death Bed Blues,” a slowish, midtempo straight blues with a relaxed shuffle feel, lands in the West Coast neighborhood of Lowell Fulson, groove-wise, with elegant guitar lines that could have come from Fenton Robinson, whose “You Don’t Know What Love Is” appears here, fleshed out with percussion and electric piano, with sublime guitar and a beautiful vocal. The entire album, in fact, is wonderfully sung, but the title track merits special attention. The country soul classic by Johnny Adams gets a simple, effective arrangement of rhythm section, organ, Floyd Cramer-style piano, and guitar, and while the Tan Canary is often cited as one of the best pure singers to work in blues and R&B, Myles’s performance yields nothing. Subtle shifts in timbre give his voice a country feeling; his phrasing is devastatingly expressive; and his glides into falsetto during the choruses are breathtaking. “Reconsider Me” is a show-stopper.

One number splits the difference between the rockers and the blues songs. “What Is Love” was originally done by The Loved Ones, a great and underappreciated Oakland-based band whose two albums on Hightone achieved a potent distillation of the rock-and-soul of the early Rolling Stones, the mid-‘60s R&B-on-the-cusp-of-funk of James Brown, blues attitude à la Junior Wells, and a faultless pop sensibility. Obviously Myles remembers them fondly, too, for he recreates their highly original sound flawlessly. Three cheers!

While it is likely that the purists won’t admit to liking everything here, they will surely find the blues-based material deeply enjoyable. It is also likely that those who perhaps came for the rock-inflected songs will stay to hear the soul and blues, and that non-purists will love all of Reconsider Me! That makes A.C. Myles’s new album just the sort of gateway drug I thoroughly endorse. Reconsider Me! promises to provide some of the most memorable moments of 2014.

 

TOM HYSLOP

 

The artist kindly provided the review copy of this CD.

Guy King: Solo and Organ Trio Recordings

By Myself I Am Who I Am And It Is What It Is

GUY KING

By Myself

I Am Who I Am And It Is What It Is

IBF Records, 2012

guyking.net

Guy King established his credentials in the six years he spent as bandleader for Chicago legend Willie Kent, during which his tough but nuanced lead guitar playing was a major part of The Gents’ hard-edged blues sound. Following Kent’s death in 2006, King embarked upon a solo career. His debut album Livin’ It, on which a new, tightly arranged style, inflected with smooth, jazz-shaded R&B, began to emerge, was nominated for a Blues Music Award; and the guitarist, a native of Israel, seemed to be everywhere at once, appearing nationally and internationally with his blues band, playing solo shows, and fronting an organ trio around Chicago. Then he seemingly fell off the map. As it turns out, King has been spending most of his time abroad, mainly performing in Israel and Brazil. Given that he is preparing to return to the United States for a series of dates scheduled around the 2014 Chicago Blues Festival, now seems a good time to take stock of the two excellent albums King quietly released at the end of summer 2012.

Willie Kent’s gritty electric blues were one thing; the uptown Livin’ It was quite another. What King does on By Myself is completely unexpected. Powerful interpretations of songs by pre-war blues icon Robert Johnson make up nearly half of the 15-song set. King shows a surprising affinity for the form, with a mastery of Johnson’s technique and chords, a snappy, percussive attack that brings a full and expressive sound to the solo guitar, and vocals that shift from full to falsetto, always sounding natural and often impassioned, as when his voice breaks in “Hellhound On My Trail,” where King evokes hopeless resignation in the face of haunting mystery. At the other end of the emotional register is the relatively plainspoken “Steady Rollin’ Man,” also among the strongest performances here. King’s singing takes on a notable resonance and vibrato, appropriately enough, on “Can’t Be Satisfied,” one of two Muddy Waters numbers, and thumps fleet runs on the bass strings of his guitar behind Lightnin’ Hopkins’s “Katie Mae,” which closes this portion of the program.

Don’t despair if Mississippi and Texas blues are not your thing. Five songs at the end of the CD come from an entirely different direction. Still solo, still built on King’s acoustic guitar and evocative singing, they touch on more contemporary and more cosmopolitan musical styles. “I Am Who I Am And It Is What It Is” is a swinging, soulful, upbeat number with a jazzy flair. Next King reprises the sophisticated ballad “Alone In The City,” from Livin’ It. Stripped of its electric instruments and horns, it sounds more like Percy Mayfield or even Charles Brown at his gloomiest–with Ray Charles somewhere at the root of both versions. King overdubs subtle percussion on the last few songs, all in the bossa nova style, beginning with his reading of the jazz standard “Nature Boy,” continuing through his lively cover of Joao Gilberto’s “Acapulco,” and ending with a smoky “Besame Mucho.” This is music for lovers, indeed.

Recorded with Mike Schlick (drums) and Ben Paterson (organ), the two-CD set I Am Who I Am And It Is What It Is offers a cool cruise through jazz and standards, blues and ballads, soul and R&B, and pop. The program begins with a band version of the title track before moving to Charlie Parker’s “Yardbird Suite.” King then shifts from bop to the birth of soul, with an emotional “Drown In My Own Tears.” Next up is a light “Sweet Lorraine,” a rousing “Mojo,” then back to jazz with Stanley Turrentine’s bluesy “Sugar,” and on to Percy Mayfield’s “Please Send Me Someone To Love” and a “Going To Chicago” much toned down from any of the often-heard Joe Williams versions. King’s interest in Brazil comes out in Jobim’s uptempo “Agua De Beber.” Bobby Hebb’s pop smash “Sunny” yields to another Ray Charles ballad before King delivers a wondrous “Tear It Down,” capturing not only Wes Montgomery’s signature octaves but his excitement and effortless swing. Paterson is on fire here, too, and Schlick ably covers the drum breaks.

The second disc unfolds along the same lines, covering standards romantic (“You’ve Changed,” “Moonlight In Vermont”) and frivolous (“The Frim Fram Sauce”); jazz (“Green Dolphin Street” and workouts on McGriff’s “Vicky” and Burrell’s “Kenny’s Sound”); lush ballads from Billie Holiday (“God Bless The Child”) and Stevie Wonder (“Lately”); the breezy Brazilian “Brigas Nunca Mais”; blues (a pitiful “All Over Again,” from B.B. King’s catalog) and R&B (from Ray Charles once more, in a splendid “Roll With My Baby”). As is often the case with organ trios, some of the best material comes from unlikely places. King nods to the soul jazz tradition with sweet pop and elegant soul selections (“Isn’t She Lovely” and “Me And Mrs. Jones”), and surprises with the country weeper “Crying Time,” perhaps learned from Buck Owens, or remembered from bluesman Phillip Walker’s Playboy Records LP. In either case, it is devastating. Overall, the division between instrumentals and vocal numbers is about even, the latter showing King’s pleasant, expressive range, and on virtually every track, King and Paterson trade solos that, even when speaking the language of jazz, retain bluesy phrasing and tonalities. The group has a real feeling for the entire range of styles on What It Is, an absolutely lovely album on many levels.

King’s achievement is all the more impressive when one considers that both albums were recorded virtually off-the-cuff. Inspired after an evening’s gig, King cut the solo album in a single session, using an acoustic guitar belonging to the studio. In much the same way, the 30 songs on the organ trio record were laid down, in much less than 24 hours, during the course of an all-nighter, with a brief follow-up later in the afternoon. One might reasonably wonder if there is anything he can’t do, and where he will take us next. King has in fact been writing and recording new material, with an ear sensibly tilted toward producing great music, without much concern for genre restrictions. The touchstone artists whose work inspired the two works considered here–Muddy Waters, Antonio Carlos Jobim, Stevie Wonder, Nat “King” Cole, and Ray Charles in particular–seem likely to play a continuing role in King’s musical development. That is an evolution I don’t want to miss. In taking the varied music he loves and recasting it in new combinations, Guy King is going about his art the right way. Musicians with genuinely big ears are rare, and talent like King’s is rarer still.

TOM HYSLOP

I bought these CDs from the artist’s Web site.

Tinsley Ellis • Midnight Blue

Tinsley Ellis Midnight Blue Front Cover Square

TINSLEY ELLIS

Midnight Blue

Heartfixer Music, 2014

http://tinsleyellis.com/

In 2013, Tinsley Ellis released Get It, an all-instrumental album, somewhat unexpectedly composed of straightforward blues and rootsy rock songs. Now he returns with something more in line with what we have come to expect from him over 15 or so records and about 30 years in the trenches. Midnight Blue makes an emphatic statement confirming Ellis’s position not only as one of our great guitarists, but as a superior writer and singer of straight-ahead postwar electric blues and rock. Perhaps at the sacrifice of some accuracy, I’m going to cover what Ellis and company are up to under the umbrellas of three broadly defined styles.

Long acclaimed as one of the most intense and creative artists in blues rock, Ellis is assured enough to open Midnight Blue with a relatively slow number, “If The River Keeps Rising,” which starts with just his rhythmic but delicate acoustic guitar and plaintive vocal. When the band comes in after the first verse, the sound explodes into a bluesy slam, à la Zeppelin’s treatment of “When The Levee Breaks,” replete with Lynn Williams’s Bonham-worthy drumming and several thickly overdriven electric guitars woven into the mix. Between its melodic sense and guitar work that, in its phrasing and high gain tonality, recall strongly Eric Clapton’s late-‘80s Journeyman period, “Harder To Find” is an affecting and atmospheric midtempo rock ballad, with an absolutely lovely middle section and chorus. Touches like a slow-wash sound that might come from a Leslie cabinet are emblematic of the attention to sonic detail on this record.  “The Only Thing” is a solid blues shuffle with stops, very much in the vein of “I Ain’t Superstitious,” that splits the difference between Howlin’ Wolf and the Jeff Beck Group. Ellis’s toppy lead guitar sound pushes it perhaps in the direction of the latter, while “Mouth Turn Dry,” a Wolf-like stomp, sports wiry guitar breaks that recall both Hubert Sumlin (naturally) and Otis Rush. Its powerful lyric touches on romantic doubt, self-centered fear, and the dangers of drink. “That’s My Story” is a heavy rocker on the slower side, set to the pulse of a steady eighth-note bass pedal, with a superb guitar ride-out that focuses more on rhythm and feel than flash. While its edgy groove doesn’t really sound like anything I would expect from Tinsley–something like AC/DC, but with a swampy CCR vibe–it is excellent.

At times, Ellis has dabbled in R&B and even soul. He returns to those styles here with “It’s Not Funny,” which features a second line beat, direct from New Orleans. The mid-song breakdown is just part of hip overall rhythm arrangement, rounded out by Ellis’s tough, Lowell George-inflected slide guitar and the song’s “Iko Iko” family feel. Its title reflects perhaps the most obvious and clever turn of phrase that should have been written into a song years ago, but wasn’t. Great call, Mr. Ellis–that is how to do it! “Surrender” is a pulsing, slow- to midtempo track with a decidedly soulful edge; call it Boz Scaggs meeting Dire Straits at their dreamiest, or something The Wallflowers might once have cut. Perfect R&B-based fills and a melodic lead guitar that escalates in intensity accompany Ellis’s quiet, honest, vocal–a performance that fits the song beautifully. The ascending chord pattern behind the likewise beautifully sung “Peace And Love” comes from somewhere in the ‘60s soul universe. Its funky, Muscle Shoals feel, accentuated by Kevin McKendree’s organ and electric piano, is cast into interesting contrast by Ted Pecchio’s very Beatles-esque bass line.

About this time last year, Ellis described himself to me, I thought apologetically, as “the rock guy” in the Blues At The Crossroads 2 package, a tour that featured The Fabulous Thunderbirds in support of guests James Cotton, Jody Williams, Bob Margolin, and Ellis. The conversation took place just moments after he had delivered a set of stellar pure blues, beautiful and savage by turn. Here, he does it on “Kiss Of Death,” a spare slow blues taken at a funereal pace, much in the mode of “Double Trouble”–I mean the timeless Otis Rush song, not SRV, folks–and does it just right. The stark, late-night ballad “See No Harm” borrows its elegant, emotional changes from Ray Charles at his most gospel-drenched, back in the Atlantic days, and rivals Brother Ray for feel and passion. Believe me, I would never type that if I didn’t mean it. This is killer stuff. McKendree’s piano is sublime, and Ellis’s fills and solo are tough and to the point without breaking the mood in the slightest; his guitar tone is woody and appropriately old school. Bravo! Never mind his history with the Heartfixers; let no one suggest that Ellis in 2014 cannot sing and play blues with the best.

I am afraid that, over the years, I forgot just how good Tinsley Ellis could be, or at least began to take him for granted. His recent work has made my lapse impossible to sustain. Anyone who likes blues-based music should find much to appreciate on the excellent Midnight Blue.

TOM HYSLOP

Review copy of the CD was provided by the publicity firm Blind Raccoon.

Cyril Neville • Magic Honey

cyril neville

Cyril Neville

Magic Honey

Ruf Records, 2013

http://www.rufrecords.de

Cyril Neville became a household name (in hip households, anyway) as a member of The Meters and the youngest Neville Brother. More recently, the singer-percussionist has enjoyed popularity with Galactic and the all-star R&B/rock ensemble, Royal Southern Brotherhood. Neville’s latest solo album, Magic Honey, is naturally heavy on the sounds of his native New Orleans, with elements of rock, blues, and soul seasoning the funky roux.

The title track, a bluesy stomp outlined by Cranston Clements’s crisp guitars and the superbad tandem of Carl Dufrene (bass) and “Mean” Willie Green (whose daredevil drum fills on this song alone are worth the price of admission), splits the difference between Howlin’ Wolf and Junior Wells in full James Brown mode. (If the brash harmonica player is named, I apologize: I can’t find the credit.) The lyric, delivered with gusto by Neville, extends the sexually charged King Bee/Little Queen Bee metaphors popularized by Slim Harpo. “Blues Is The Truth,” an uptown blues ballad with a serpentine bass line and a dark undercurrent, is another bluesy highlight.

“Swamp Funk” updates creamy, ‘70s-style New Orleans syncopation, and features two of that city’s preeminent musical products: its composer Dr. John (organ) and Allen Toussaint (piano). “Funky butt is what they want,” indeed! “Another Man” brings back the funk, with Neville’s percussion and Toussaint’s piano suggesting Caribbean undertones and Clements’s guitar break developing a singing, Santana-esque tone.

But many of the album’s funky cuts have a hard, contemporary edge. Paul Butterfield’s “You Can Run But You Can’t Hide” gets an angular interpretation with another showy Clements solo, and Walter Trout’s sputtering guitar lead fits his “Running Water” like a glove. “Working Man,” with RSB bandmate Mike Zito on guitar, is rocked up so that it barely resembles Otis Rush’s original recording, yet retains its appeal through the wah, distortion, and flash. Zito also guests on “Money And Oil,” a simple, riff-based song predicated on an insistently pounding bass line and the guitars’ funky scratch and whining slide.

Other songs step outside the Magic Honey formula with varying degrees of success. Where Eugene Gales’s Zeppelin-esque “Something’s Got A Hold On Me,” a slow, heavy blues rocker, seems out of place, the slightly faster “Still Going Down Today” is softened agreeably by a slinkier groove, dramatic chorus, and soulful touches. Warren Haynes’s “Invisible” is excellent, sparse deep funk, pointing up the interplay between Norman Caesar’s organ and the rhythm section. And “Slow Motion” not only captures a sunny island mood, it is keenly aware that melodic American soul music was a dominant influence on Jamaican ska and reggae. It is a fitting closer to a strong, wide-ranging record from Cyril Neville, one of the funkiest humans on the planet, and a son of America’s most musically cosmopolitan city.

TOM HYSLOP

I received this CD for review from Mark Pucci Media.