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.

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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.

Top Ten of 2013…Plus

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

http://bluesjunctionproductions.com/daves_top_ten_list_of_top_ten_lists

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

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

2)    Holland K. Smith – Cobalt (Ellersoul)

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

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

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

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

7)    4 Jacks – Deal With It (Ellersoul)

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

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

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

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

Lurrie Bell, Blues in My Soul (Delmark)

Laura Rain & the Caesars, Electrified (LRC)

The James Hunter Six, Minute By Minute (Fantasy)

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

Adrianna Marie & Her Groovecutters, Double Crossing Blues

Sugaray Rayford, Dangerous (Delta Groove Productions)

Birdlegg, Birdlegg (Dialtone)

Don Leady, Hillbilly Boogie Surfin’ Blues

Gene Taylor, Roadhouse Memories (Bluelight Records)

Jake LaBotz, Get Right (Charnel House)

Tinsley Ellis, Get It! (Heartfixer)

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

The Nick Moss Band • Time Ain’t Free: Preview

Nick Moss Band

The Nick Moss Band

Time Ain’t Free

Blue Bella Records, 2014

http://www.nickmoss.com/

http://www.bluebellarecords.com/

I saw the Nick Moss Band perform twice in 2013 and was left with an extremely favorable impression. Even so, I was unprepared for what I heard when Nick asked me to listen to the band’s upcoming record, due in March. Killer piano and organ sounds balance excellent, varied guitar tones, all riding atop a powerful, nuanced rhythm section. Nick’s husky vocals are matched by those of the new band member, Michael Ledbetter, an exceptional soul and blues (and, I understand, opera) singer, making a potent one-two combination.

Time Ain’t Free finds an inspired Nick Moss extending his creative streak, offering an intelligent, updated take on ‘70s rock and R&B, marked by daring arrangements and surprising juxtapositions. Blending elements of Parliament, the Allman Brothers, Stevie Wonder, Faces, even Afrobeat, and at times evoking an Ike Turner-Little Feat summit, the set encompasses Muscle Shoals sweetness, stormy postmodern boogie, greasy roadhouse R&B, soul-tinged rock, and gospel-inflected ballads, all filtered through Moss’s deep-blue lens, rocking hard yet stone funky.

Look for Time Ain’t Free to be one of 2014’s more interesting releases – complex and challenging, but tuneful and completely accessible.

Magic Sam • Live at the Avant Garde 1968

Magic Sam

MAGIC SAM

Live at the Avant Garde

Delmark Records, 2013

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

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

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

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

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

TOM HYSLOP

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

2014 Blues Music Awards Nominees

major2_hvr_02

The Blues Foundation has announced the nominations for the 35th Blues Music Awards. Blues Foundation members elect the Blues Music Awards winners, so join and vote! The Awards will be presented in Memphis, Tennessee on Thursday, May 8, 2014. Purchase BMA tickets and learn more about the Blues Foundation at blues.org.

The complete list of 35th Blues Music Award nominees:

Acoustic Album
There’s a Time – Doug MacLeod
Juba Dance – Guy Davis featuring Fabrizio Poggi
Soulscape – Harrison Kennedy
Avalon – Rory Block
Unleashed – The Hound Kings

Acoustic Artist
Doug MacLeod
Guy Davis
Harrison Kennedy
Little G Weevil
Rory Block

Album
Get Up! – Ben Harper with Charlie Musselwhite
Remembering Little Walter – Billy Boy Arnold, Charlie Musselwhite, Mark Hummel, Sugar Ray Norcia & James Harman
Rhythm & Blues – Buddy Guy
Cotton Mouth Man – James Cotton
Blues in My Soul – Lurrie Bell

B.B. King Entertainer
Bobby Rush
Buddy Guy
John Németh
Kim Wilson
Rick Estrin

Band
Lil Ed & the Blues Imperials
Rick Estrin & the Night Cats
Tedeschi Trucks Band
The Mannish Boys
Trampled Under Foot

Best New Artist Debut
Double Crossing Blues – Adrianna Marie and Her Groovecutters
Rooster – Clay Swafford
Proof of Love – Gracie Curran & the High Falutin’ Band
What’s the Chance… – Paul Gabriel
Daddy Told Me – Shawn Holt & the Teardrops
Pushin’ Against a Stone – Valerie June

Contemporary Blues Album
Get Up! – Ben Harper with Charlie Musselwhite
This Time Another Year – Brandon Santini
Rhythm & Blues – Buddy Guy
Magic Honey – Cyril Neville
Badlands – Trampled Under Foot

Contemporary Blues Female Artist
Ana Popovic
Beth Hart
Bettye LaVette
Candye Kane
Susan Tedeschi

Contemporary Blues Male Artist
Buddy Guy
Gary Clark, Jr.
Johnny Sansone
Kim Wilson
Otis Taylor

DVD
High John Records – Time Brings About a Change (Floyd Dixon)
J&R Adventures – An Acoustic Evening at the Vienna Opera House (Joe Bonamassa)
Shake-It-Sugar Records – Live (Murali Coryell)
Ruf Records – Songs from the Road (Royal Southern Brotherhood)
Blue Star Connection – Live at Knuckleheads (The Healers)

Historical
The Sun Blues Box (Various Artists) – Bear Family
The Original Honeydripper (Roosevelt Sykes) – Blind Pig Records
The Jewel/Paula Blues Story (Various Artists) – Fuel Records
Death Might Be Your Santa Claus (Various Artists) – Legacy Recordings
The Complete King/Federal Singles (Freddie King) – Real Gone Music

Instrumentalist-Bass
Bill Stuve
Bob Stroger
Danielle Schnebelen
Larry Taylor
Patrick Rynn

Instrumentalist-Drums
Cedric Burnside
Jimi Bott
Kenny Smith
Tom Hambridge
Tony Braunagel

Instrumentalist-Guitar
Anson Funderburgh
Gary Clark, Jr.
Kid Andersen
Lurrie Bell
Ronnie Earl

Instrumentalist-Harmonica
Brandon Santini
Charlie Musselwhite
James Cotton
Kim Wilson
Rick Estrin

Instrumentalist-Horn
Big James Montgomery
Eddie Shaw
Jimmy Carpenter
Sax Gordon
Terry Hanck

Koko Taylor Award (Traditional Blues Female)
Diunna Greenleaf
Lavelle White
Teeny Tucker
Trudy Lynn
Zora Young

Rock Blues Album
Gone to Texas – Mike Zito & the Wheel
Made Up Mind – Tedeschi Trucks Band
Can’t Get Enough – The Rides
John the Conquer Root – Toronzo Cannon
Luther’s Blues – Walter Trout

Pinetop Perkins Piano Player
Barrelhouse Chuck
Dave Keyes
Marcia Ball
Mike Finnigan
Victor Wainwright

Song
“Blues in My Soul” – Lurrie Bell
“He Was There” – James Cotton, Tom Hambridge & Richard Fleming
“That’s When the Blues Begins” – James Goode
“The Entitled Few” – Doug MacLeod
“The Night the Pie Factory Burned Down” – Johnny Sansone

Soul Blues Album
Down In Louisiana – Bobby Rush
Soul Changes – Dave Keller
Soul for Your Blues – Frank Bey & Anthony Paule Band
Remembering O. V. – Johnny Rawls
Truth Is (Putting Love Back Into the Music) – Otis Clay

Soul Blues Female Artist
Barbara Carr
Denise LaSalle
Dorothy Moore
Irma Thomas
Sista Monica

Soul Blues Male Artist
Bobby Rush
Frank Bey
John Nemeth
Johnny Rawls
Otis Clay

Traditional Blues Album
Driftin’ from Town to Town – Barrelhouse Chuck & Kim Wilson’s Blues All-Stars
Remembering Little Walter – Billy Boy Arnold, Charlie Musselwhite, Mark Hummel, Sugar Ray Norcia, James Harman
Cotton Mouth Man – James Cotton
Blues in My Soul – Lurrie Bell
Black Toppin’ – The Cash Box Kings

Traditional Blues Male Artist
Anson Funderburgh
Billy Boy Arnold
James Cotton
John Primer
Lurrie Bell

Tom Holland & The Shuffle Kings • No Fluff, Just The Stuff

Holland_Stuff

Tom Holland & The Shuffle Kings

No Fluff, Just The Stuff

E Natchel Records, 2013

http://www.tomhollandshufflekings.com/

From the beginning of his 15+-year career, Tom Holland was among the most sought-after sidemen in Chicago, first joining John Primer’s band, then Eddy “The Chief” Clearwater’s. His experiences backing everyone from Robert Lockwood Jr. and Jody Williams to Son Seals and Jimmy Johnson rounded out an enviable apprenticeship program. Holland led his own band practically from the start, and while more than a decade has elapsed since the first Tom Holland & The Shuffle Kings CD was released, the southpaw guitarist has hardly been taking it easy. He played extensively behind Carey Bell and Hubert Sumlin, and has toured with James Cotton for almost 10 years now. Five years ago, he recorded an album of guitar-piano duets with Marty Sammon, and he has appeared on records by artists including Cotton, Mud Morganfield, and Alabama Mike.

Now he is back with a new long player of his own. Convening at Felix Reyes’s friendly House of Tone, a studio noted for producing warmly authentic sounds, the Shuffle Kings–Holland, Mike Scharf (bass), Tino Cortes (drums), and Big D (harmonica)–really delivered on these 10 original songs. The rhythm section has a solid feeling for the blues, and, in true Chicago fashion, the harp takes a central place in the mix, but Big D never overplays. Holland sings unaffectedly, and his guitar work is in the camp of understated perfection still practiced by contemporary players like Lurrie Bell and (more directly) Primer, whose slide and single-string styles Holland has absorbed thoroughly.

The opening track, “Waiting On The Other Shoe To Drop,” incorporates some unusual changes that lend it the flavor of the Darrell Nulisch-era Broadcasters, when Ronnie Earl led the toughest blues band on the planet. But in general, the material offers a survey of real deal Chicago blues. Some titles are direct from the vintage stylebook: “Shuffle King Boogie,” a brisk jump number in the tradition of Jimmy Rogers’s “Rock This House,” features guests Sammon and Primer. In the Muddy Waters-style slow blues, “Hurry Up & Wait,” Holland again echoes Rogers (with touches of Lockwood) and evokes Muddy’s slide, filtered through Primer; Big D lays down deep swoops and squalls. Perhaps evidence of the Cotton connection, the record’s title track is a raw, harmonica-heavy boogie along the lines of “Evans Shuffle” or “Juke,” with hints of Elmore James’s “Bobby’s Rock” in Holland’s low-register riffing.

Other songs edge stylistically closer to the present day. “Look Here Baby” is a rumba blues with more than average bounce to the ounce, due largely to Cortes’s enthusiastic drumming. Sammon turns in another terrific solo, and Holland constructs a remarkable rhythm figure of hip lines, cool chords, and perfect single-note bass parts. (His solo is dynamite, too.) The loose-jointed shuffle “More Things Change” comes straight out of the John Primer mold and, in fact, spotlights the master himself, executing many of his signature guitar moves. “Hey Pardner!” is an up-tempo instrumental, based on “Shake For Me,” that shows Holland learned more than a few tricks while backing up Hubert Sumlin. As he plays off of Big D, Holland steers his soloing in the latter half of the song into something more original.

“Long Road To Tomorrow”–churning, minor funk with a more contemporary Chicago feel–wouldn’t sound out of place on any record by Vance Kelly, Primer, or Willie Kent. In “Easiest Thing I’ll Ever Do,” a mid-tempo soul original, Holland plays an easygoing, melodic vocal line against a galloping rhythm. D’s harmonica capably fills the spaces that horns or keyboards might ordinarily take up. Exploring the opposite side of that lyric, Holland gives us “Hardest Part Of Loving You,” a devastating, slow minor blues. Marty Sammon’s piano is brilliantly Spann-like, and D lays it down heavy. Holland sings with real urgency, and, on guitar, alternates tremolo-picked passages with deliberate slow phrases of frightening intensity. With Otis Rush out of commission, it seems that far too few people play (or know how to play) this kind of thing right. Thank goodness Holland paid attention when he was hanging out with the late, great Magic Slim.

In tipping his ever-present cowboy hat to his influences, Tom Holland has cut an excellent album. No Fluff, Just The Stuff makes a strong case that Chicago blues (and I don’t mean the modern rock-and-funk hybrid that too often passes) remain vital and valid.

TOM HYSLOP

I bought this CD from the artist.

Paul Metsa & Willie Walker • Live on Highway 55

Metsa Walker FntCover

Paul Metsa & Willie Walker

Live on Highway 55

MaximumFolk.com

http://paulandwillie.com

A well-respected singer and songwriter since the 1970s, the Minnesota-based Paul Metsa is a noted scholar, activist, promoter, statesman, and author, all in connection with his musical endeavors. Willie Walker is simply one of the best soul singers in the business, probably best known today to those outside the Twin Cities area for his recent work with the Butanes–three albums’ worth of very fine original soul and blues material by Curtis Obeda–and for the coveted handful of sides he recorded for Checker and Goldwax in the ’60s.

To my knowledge, despite Walker and Metsa’s long-term acquaintance and geographic proximity, Live on Highway 55 marks their first recording together. The duo proves to be a natural pairing, even though each artist is working a bit outside his comfort zone: Metsa stays completely off of the microphone, and plays a set that is slightly different from his usual folk and blues repertoire; and Walker, who (in spite of a few catalog items, like his vintage single of “Ticket to Ride” and a cover of The Eagles’ “I Can’t Tell You Why” on his first, eponymous long-player) generally favors soul music, stretches effortlessly into material like the Louis Armstrong standard “What a Wonderful World,” “House of the Rising Sun,” and a bluesy “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out” that relies less on the version by Bobby Womack than on Bessie Smith or Derek & The Dominos.

Walker’s voice has aged appealingly, developing a controlled raspiness–a frayed quality reminiscent of Eddie Hinton or Johnnie Taylor–more pronounced than it held in the “Wee” Willie Walker days, and gained in complexity and emotional resonance, while retaining all the suppleness and smooth glide of his idol Sam Cooke’s (his show-stopping interpretation of “A Change is Gonna Come” has to be heard). Metsa rises admirably to the task of evoking the well-known, sometimes quite complicated original versions of songs like “My Girl” or “Good Time Charlie’s Got The Blues.” Whether he is converting “I’d Rather Drink Muddy Water” into a minor groove à la “Help Me,” or adding a succinct blues guitar solo, sparkling with harmonics, to “Bring It On Home” (another Cooke classic), his accompaniment is adept, dynamic, and inventive. He has clearly internalized these songs to a rare degree; even without Walker’s amazing vocal, the depth of Metsa’s arrangement of “Blowin’ in the Wind” absolutely puts to shame the paint-by-numbers version released last year by an acclaimed, and usually terrific, guitarist who was a long-time member of Bob Dylan’s band.

The challenges Metsa and Walker offer each other notwithstanding, Live on Highway 55 is not as adventurous in its selection of material as, say, Bettye LaVette’s albums for the Anti- label, but it is just fine; those who swore they never again needed to hear “When a Man Loves a Woman” or “Ain’t No Sunshine” will be forced to eat their words. Nor is it perfect in every aspect–Walker sings the wrong words to Little Willie John’s “Fever” every time the chorus comes around, and I guess we’ll have to wait for a studio record to hear Metsa’s guitar sound its best (miked up, that is, instead of amplified through a pickup). But it represents far more than a souvenir for those who attended the live in-studio show in April 2013 that produced the disc. Live on Highway 55 documents a fruitful partnership and a beautiful session that rewards repeated listening.

TOM HYSLOP

I purchased this CD from the artist.

Nikki Hill with Deke Dickerson and the Bo-Keys • Soul Meets Country

2013 Deke Dickerson Nikki Hillsoulmeetscountry

Nikki Hill & Deke Dickerson

Soul Meets Country

Major Label CD/7-inch + download/download, 2013

nikkihillmusic.com

www.dekedickerson.com

www.thebokeys.com

This four track EP is slight when measured in playing time, but from the perspective of the hardcore roots music aficionado, it is a summit meeting that rivals Destroy All Monsters in earth-shaking significance. Deke Dickerson is one of the most enthusiastic and accomplished proponents of American music: as a performer, producer, promoter, fan, collector, scholar, author, and more, he does it all. Nikki Hill is, hands down, the most exciting new artist in the true rock-and-soul variety of R&B; her calling card Here’s Nikki Hill (2013) and relentless touring have devastated audiences all over the planet. And Scott Bomar’s Bo-Keys, heavy with legendary alumni of the Stax and Hi bands, are dedicated keepers of Memphis’s deep soul tradition who happen to make vital new music. Combine the three ingredients, shake, and dig the results on Soul Meets Country. First roll back the carpet, ‘cause you know it’s going to be a party.

Two Hill-Dickerson duets open the program. First is the Otis Redding-Carla Thomas chestnut “Lovey Dovey.” Dickerson obviously doesn’t sing with Redding’s intensity (who does?), but his sweet, unguarded delivery carries ample emotional force, and matches up nicely with the raw edge of Hill’s voice. Their banter has a lilting quality that works well against the push-pull of the rhythm section, which takes the song at a leisurely tempo. The feel is relaxed and greasy, due in large part to Howard Grimes’s emphasis on the backbeat versus the four-to-the-bar snare hits of the frenetic original.

Next comes “Feelin’s,” made famous by Conway Twitty and Loretta Lynn, here given a new coat of paint. Stripped of the original’s prominent steel guitar and played a few clicks of the metronome faster, the tune is driven by a surging horn chart, syncopated interplay between Grimes’s snare and Bomar’s bass, and the tambourine of Jack Ashford–a sound familiar from countless classic Motown productions. Dickerson twangs his way through a brief, lovely guitar solo, and his relaxed vocal harmonization with Hill is perfect.

Rounding out Soul Meets Country is a pair of individual numbers. “Struttin’” percolates to life with a steady bass pulse and stop-time choruses. Hill is at her sassiest here. It’s as tough as anything ever waxed, and the sound, with Bomar’s Wurlitzer piano and some very Steve Cropper-esque guitar parts by Dickerson figuring prominently in the arrangement, is reminiscent of Wilson Pickett’s classic Memphis and Muscle Shoals recordings. Dickerson revisits his “Lady Killin’ Papa” as the country funk workout “Lady Killa.” Motown ace Dennis Coffey’s wah-wah guitar is the essential sonic ingredient here, along with Archie Turner’s organ and the killer rhythm section-horn interplay that is all over the disc.

In a rare instance of truth in labeling, Soul Meets Country offers just that: four songs, Dixie-fried to delicious perfection. Fans of the Bo-Keys, Deke Dickerson, or Nikki Hill will absolutely love this one, and anyone with even a passing interest in American roots music ought to hear it. Highest recommendation.

TOM HYSLOP

I bought this CD from http://www.dekedickerson.com/shopping/merch3.php

and it is now available from the world’s greatest retailer of our kind of music: http://www.bluebeatmusic.com/

J.T. Lauritsen & Friends – Play by the Rules

Lauritsen

J.T. Lauritsen & Friends

Play by the Rules

Hunters Records, 2013

jtlauritsen.com

Over the course of six albums, J.T. Lauritsen has shown an unmistakable feeling for the music of the American South, with strong examples of blues, country, roots rock, and Louisiana music in varying styles to his credit. The singer and accordion, Hammond organ, and harmonica player cut his latest set in two sessions: one at home in Norway, with his working band The Buckshot Hunters; the other at Ardent Studios in Memphis, with a collection of well-known American musicians. Drummer Jon Grimbsy keeps time on every cut. The results are absolutely enjoyable: Play by the Rules is a terrific collection.

The Ardent date (12 May 2012) produced five songs. “Next Time,” a Lauritsen composition that shares a melody with Chris Kenner’s “Sick and Tired,” rides straight out of New Orleans on Victor Wainwright’s rolling piano and Grimsby’s second-line drums. Josh Roberts contributes a tersely phrased and effective guitar solo. The title track, a stately mid-tempo ballad, features prominent piano and accordion, with vocal harmonies by Debbie Jamison and Teresa James. Roberts’s slide guitar curlicues, delivered in a thick tone à la Ry Cooder, are the key sonic element. On the excellent instrumental “Memphis Boogie,” Lauritsen (accordion), Wainwright, and Roberts trade solos at a breakneck pace. A pair of shuffle, paced by Willie J. Campbell (Mannish Boys, Fabulous Thunderbirds, James Harman) on bass and Greg Gumpel (who plays bass on the other Ardent sides) on guitar, rounds out the Memphis sessions. Walter Horton’s “Need My Babe,” with crucial B3 from Paul Wagnberg, pits Lauritsen in a harmonica blow-off with Billy Gibson. Gumpel turns in a lovely train-wreck guitar solo on Bo Carlsson’s stomping shuffle “The Blues Got Me,” which closes the disc.

Seven songs come from a session in Oslo (6 February 2013). A solid version of the swamp pop classic “Mathilda,” originally by Cookie & The Cupcakes, with guitar by Arnfinn Tørrisen, leads into Lauritsen’s “Find My Little Girl,” which rocks along over a “Hi Heel Sneakers” groove and spotlights Anson Funderburgh’s sleek leads. Funderburgh also contributes rhythm guitar to an atmospheric reading of Gillian Welch’s “Valley of Tears,” which is both delicate and murky. Big Joe Maher’s “Ever Since The World Began” sounds particularly sweet, backed with Lauritsen’s accordion and the rollicking groove laid down by Grimsby and bassist/backing vocalist Atle Rakvåg. Rakvåg, the co-producer, submitted a pair of songs he wrote with Knut Eide: the clever “Eye Candy,” a riff-based rocker, and a truly gorgeous ballad, “I’ll Never Get Over You.” The rhythm section plays subtly under Wagnberg’s keyboards (Fender Rhodes and Hammond B3), guitars by Tørrisen and Ian Fredrick Johnnessen, and lush harmony vocals by Reba Russel and Debbie Jamison. This composition, in the Northern soul style, could as easily have come from the UK in the ‘80s as from Philadelphia in the late ‘60s, but fits perfectly in this context and is surely one of this year’s finest new songs.

Lauritsen always sings with passion and deep soulfulness, and–for Anglophones who may care–no trace of a Scandinavian accent. He removes all doubt in the opening track, a cover of William Bell’s Stax classic “Everyday Will Be Like A Holiday,” where he shares lead vocal duties with Sven Zetterberg, unquestionably one of the greatest living singers of deep soul music. (Kerry Clarke and Larry McCray are the impressive background voices.) The fresh arrangement (sans sleigh bells) is pitch-perfect, as is the balance of instruments throughout the album. Whether recorded by The Buckshot Hunters or by a crew weighted with Blues Music Award-winning instrumentalists, every cut is guided by Lauritsen’s authentic vision of American roots music styles. I recommend Play by the Rules without reservations.

TOM HYSLOP

Review copy of this CD was provided by Frank Roszak Radio Promotions.