mr tom’s Top 25 of 2016: best blues

Because 10 just isn’t enough: My top 25 blues and near-blues (that is, old-school R&B/soul and roots rock and roll) albums of last year. I won’t rank them except to let you know that my favorite record of 2016 came out of Austin, TX, with a bunch of tremendous songs, fine singing and playing, and a sound 100% all its own:

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Greg Izor & The Box Kickers – The 13 14

The other 24, alphabetically:
Alabama Mike – Upset The Status Quo
Lurrie Bell – Can’t Shake This Feeling
Dylan Bishop – The Exciting Sounds of the Dylan Bishop Band
The Blue Shadows
John Blues Boyd – The Real Deal
Jason Elmore &  Hoodoo Witch – Champagne Velvet
Golden State Lone Star Blues Revue
Dennis Gruenling – Ready or Not
James Hunter Six – Hold On!
Mitch Kashmar – West Coast Toast
Guy King – Truth
Don Leady & His Rockin’ Revue – Poppy Toppy Gone
Nick Moss Band – From the Root to the Fruit
The Paladins – Slippin’ in Ernesto’s
Eli “Paperboy” Reed – My Way Home
Sugar Ray & The Bluetones – Seeing is Believing
Jim Suhler & Monkey Beat – Live at the Kessler
Trickbag –  With Friends Vol 2
Tony Vega Band – Black Magic Box
Wee Willie Walker & The Greaseland All Stars – Live! in Notodden
Nick Waterhouse – Never Twice
Raphael Wressnig & Igor Prado – The Soul Connection
Nancy Wright – Playdate!
Sven Zetterberg – Something for Everybody

I have to add one – I completely forgot about

Bobby Radcliff – Absolute Hell

I could certainly have kept going and included the latest from Kurt Crandall, Big Jon Atkinson & Bob Corritore, William Bell, John Primer, the Bo-Keys, Tinsley Ellis, John Long, Matthew Skoller, Lil’ Ed, Bob Margolin, and any number of other excellent albums, but I had to draw the line somewhere. Some of those CDs would have made the list yesterday, and might again tomorrow. The lesson: There’s a lot of beautiful music out there if you know where to look. I stand by all of these albums – great stuff. Get ’em if you ain’t got ’em, and buy another copy for a friend.

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That Eli “Paperboy” Reed album is really special. Pops Staples meets James Brown, or something like that. It’s on fire.

I’m going to keep separate a pair of absolutely essential, sizzling platters full of rare and previously unreleased music from two blues masters:

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B.B. King – Here’s One You Didn’t Know About

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Rusty Zinn – Last Train to Bluesville

When I wrote “essential,” I meant it.

Hit me with any complaints or “Right On!”s you might have.

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Ross Kleiner & the Thrill • You Don’t Move Me

rosskleinerthethrill

Ross Kleiner & The Thrill

You Don’t Move Me

2013

 

www.rosskleinerandthethrill.com

www.rosskleiner.com

 

Making new music in old styles can be a treacherous undertaking. Some understand the form but lack the proper feeling, and produce anything from a hollow echo to a grotesque approximation of the real thing. Others are hypercorrect in every aspect, but so limit their scope that their music appeals only to a fanatical corps of listeners. (Note: some of my favorite music is just like this.) It is rare to find an artist who understands and respects vintage music, and breathes new life into it, without evoking smirks and snorts, or worse, from his fellow faithful. Enter Ross Kleiner & The Thrill, a band from Minneapolis, Minnesota that approaches rock ‘n’ roll music with a fan’s heart and an expert’s ear, and gets it entirely right.

At the core of The Thrill are Cornelius Watson (guitar) and Victor Span (drums), with Elmer Johnston (bass) and Paulie Cerra (saxophone). Providing additional texture are Jon Duncan (piano and organ), Chico Chavez (bongos and guiro), John Rausch (shakers and tambourine), and Gregory Jong (acoustic guitar). (Note: In the working band’s lineup, Kleiner plays acoustic guitar; Brad Collett replaces Johnston and Robert Russel. Cerra; the additional percussion and keys are omitted.) The blues-tinged, tasteful, and imaginative playing of Watson, a stone killer guitarist from Winnipeg, heats up the proceedings without overpowering them, and Cerra’s nervous, taut riffs flesh out the songs.

Kleiner is an exciting, enthusiastic, and refreshingly unmannered singer, and a capable songwriter. The 14 originals on You Don’t Move Me point up his range. The band revs its collective engine at the starting line with “Mighty Mighty Man,” a raw rocker featuring a tremendous riff, pounding drums, and ringing guitar solos.  Reminiscent of The Blasters at their best, this track shows, more than 55 years after “Be-Bop-A-Lula,” just how a nonsense lyric can still improve a chorus. “Go Mad,” a bluesy, stop-time shuffle with stinging guitar, evokes a similar feeling–of Johnny Burnette Trio via Blasters–a few cuts later.

The stripped-down rockabilly boogie “Sleepless Nights” accents Span’s drumming, Johnston’s doghouse bass, and Cerra’s sax before Watson’s guitar shatters the proceedings with Neanderthal force. On the title track, Kleiner warns off his unwanted ex-lover while Span lays down the prototypical hambone beat most often associated with Bo Diddley; the guitar suggests Dick Dale’s Middle Eastern-tinged surf sounds. “Love Machine” recalls the brutal, Diddley-esque R&B of the early Rolling Stones.

“Goodbye Lover,” a quirky tune with an 8-bar structure, melds sunny pop with a vaguely ska-inflected rhythm, yet retains the roots rock flavor of its fellow songs and would work alongside some of Johnny Burnette’s solo sides. “Stealing Kisses,” another up-tempo ’50s-style number cut from similar cloth, rocks harder. Kleiner delivers one of his most spirited vocals on the great jump blues “Clutchin’ Pearls”; breakdowns and a hip middle eight add dynamics and excitement. “Treat Me Right” is jazzy swing in a minor key, with eloquent, whammy-shimmered guitar solos worthy of Brian Setzer.

Kleiner has a real affinity for minor numbers and unexpected notes. “Without You” combines a loping, (spaghetti) Western groove à la “Ghost Riders in the Sky” with surfy guitar and a near-yodeled vocal, to an unexpectedly ominous effect. “The Thrill” features a steamed-window vocal amid Watson’s beautifully fat chording and snaking lines. The excellent “Only Wanna Be With You” blends Latin rhythms and percussion with exotic guitar figures. “Rocksteady” struts coolly and has an almost anthemic quality, in spite of its minor key signature. “I’m Ready,” a laid-back rocker, incorporates touches of surf and rockabilly and a rather tongue-in-cheek, lounge lizard attitude. It is irresistible.

Apart from making a superb album–I daresay it delivers every bit of its promised Thrill–Kleiner’s success is that he absolutely conveys the essence of roots rock, without being overly beholden to any particular stylistic aspect of it. Hence You Don’t Move Me holds tremendous appeal for all lovers of rock ‘n’ roll. Casual fans of Elvis or any of Brian Setzer’s projects, scene-making devotees of The Paladins or Robert Gordon, and obsessively indefatigable rockabilly collectors will all dig Ross Kleiner and The Thrill.

TOM HYSLOP

Thanks to the artist for providing the CD for this review.

Texas Cannonballs

cannonballs

Texas Cannonballs

Texas Cannonballs

Rock ’n’ Roll Saves Production, 2013

texascannonballs.blogspot.com

To order CDs, contact danherbert40@me.com

Unite Hector Watt, a veteran of Austin’s Solid Senders, the band that perhaps sounded the most like the Fabulous Thunderbirds that was not the Fabulous Thunderbirds; Chris Ruest, who has been quietly building a reputation as one of the toughest blues guitar players on either side of the Atlantic; and the truly legendary Preston Hubbard, whose résumé includes Roomful of Blues, the Fabulous Thunderbirds, Nick Curran’s Nite Lifes, Los Carnales, and many other projects elevated by his low frequency work; and you have the core of Texas Cannonballs. Despite possessing the makings of a top-flight blues outfit, and although they share their name with a well-known, late-period album by Freddie King, the Cannonballs’ new project is cut from a pattern of dangerous rock ‘n’ roll.

The riddle at first seems insoluble. Why would three players of such esteem turn away from the blues? To Watt, who shares guitar and vocal duties with Ruest, the answer is a simple desire to change things up a bit. “A 100 percent blues album was out of the question. It’s been done over and over, time and time before,” he told Ellie Rumbold of forfolkssake.com. And while a blues recording from these musicians could hardly have disappointed, we can be grateful for the Cannonballs’ decision to move in another direction. Their self-titled début delivers thirteen songs that emerge hard-edged from the speakers, glinting like switchblades under streetlamps.

With the exception of the two numbers by Jerry McCain–an unhinged, Cramps-worthy take on “I Want Somebody To Love” that ups the ante on the original, and a blistering “Geronimo Rock”–that set the table for the rest of the set, Ruest and Watt split the songwriting more or less equally. The album opens with Watt’s “Fly Away,” a swampy track with a loping, soulful groove, and stinging lead guitars. His “Hard Way,” an infectious, bouncing roots-rocker co-written with Lou Ann Barton, feels rowdy as a lost McCain tune and recalls the Stones at their Chuck Berry-inspired best. Along the same lines is “Me and the Devil,” a swaggering number enhanced by Temple Ray’s backing vocals. “Texas Tumbleweed” features prominent slide guitars straight out of Mick Taylor-era Stones (“All Down The Line”), and sounds like something Doug Sahm might have cooked up with one of Alejandro Escovedo’s old bands (Rank and File or True Believers, take your pick). “King of the Jungle” rides a chunky, push-pull rhythm, very vaguely reminiscent of “Long Cool Woman in a Black Dress,” and has a great lyric; I can’t decide whether the guitars or the vocal have more snap and snarl. Also snarling is the ominous “King of the Blues,” an oily, garage blues worthy of Iggy and the Stooges. The prisoner’s lament “Dreaming” closes out the program with a quiet, acoustic arrangement that blends Stones-y country elements with notes of Johnny Thunders’s occasional ballads.

Ruest proves to be no slouch in the Stones department, with his amazing “One Slip” showing off some of the chunkiest Keith-inspired riffs on record. He also contributes “Blew My Head,” a slinky, riff-based rocker à la the T-Birds’ “Powerful Stuff,” but with a distinctly darker mood. Just as complex is “Nobody Cares About Me,” a chugging, R&B-inflected rocker, downshifts into a minor key, complete with spooky, raked chords, for the choruses. His “I Was Wrong,” another minor number, is the closest thing to a pure blues among the original compositions. Its feel shifts dramatically from stop-time verses to a shuffle feel during the choruses and the dynamic solo break. Neither of these songs would sound out of place on a record by the mighty Paladins.

I have dropped a lot of names during the course of this recap, solely in the interest of providing some kind of frame of reference–signposts marking the general territories in which Texas Cannonballs work. The Cannonballs have in fact made something quite original of familiar materials. Think of the Flamin’ Groovies jamming with Omar and the Howlers, and you might come close to the soundscape they have created. It is raw yet sleek, with an underlying sense of menace and drive rarely heard since Exile On Main Street, and unrelentingly cool.

TOM HYSLOP

The CD for this review was kindly provided by the band’s management.

(Note: Jim Starboard drummed on the CD; the band’s Facebook page indicates Hugo Devier is the regular drummer. Also, the printed CD cover lists the first four tracks incorrectly. #4 and #1 are reversed, as are #2 and #3.)

New single from The Paladins – UPDATED

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The Paladins

Should Have Been Dreamin’ b/w Wicked

Lux Records 7”, 2013

http://www.luxrecordsusa.com/products/thepaladins-45-vinyl-wicked

https://www.facebook.com/thepaladinsband

Update: Wicked is now available as a digital download –

https://itunes.apple.com/us/album/wicked-single/id666900368?ign-mpt=uo%3D4

Nick Curran’s death was without question the worst news I received in 2012. Second on my list was the breakup, right about the time their second album was to be released, of the Stone River Boys, the country soul band fronted by Dave Gonzalez and Mike Barfield. As has been said, one door closes, another opens. Just as the Stone River Boys offered musical consolation after Chris Gaffney’s death in 2008 put a premature end to the sublime Hacienda Brothers, Gonzalez’s previous band, so have recent developments rekindled hope that the mighty Paladins will rise again. In the past few months, an official Facebook page has appeared; a few live dates have been scheduled and played; and a 45 rpm vinyl record presenting two new songs has been issued by Lux Records.

The last great Paladins lineup of Dave Gonzalez (guitars and vocals), Thomas Yearsley (bass), and Brian Fahey (drums) is reunited on this 7”. Briefly, the single is essential listening for R&B aficionados in general, and, although the band’s roots-rocking side is sublimated here in favor of the soul sounds Gonzalez developed in the Hacienda Brothers and SRB projects, for Paladins fans in particular.

“Should Have Been Dreamin’,” the record’s instrumental A side, reaches back to the mid-‘60s for a sweet soul/rock ‘n’ roll combination, with splashes of surf. Organ, guitar, and baritone guitar outline a lovely melody atop a soul-clap snare drum pattern. A leisurely paced number that builds in intensity, it reminds me in a small way of the dreamlike interpretations by Ry Cooder and Duke Levine of “It’s Gonna Work Out Fine” (but not Ike & Tina Turner’s stuttering original).

The hip flip side, “Wicked,” is a blues/pop/rock/soul number. There are some very cool rhythmic things going on, with the palm-muted staccato guitar figure sketching a vaguely Latin groove. Quick, stark shifts between minor key verses and romantic, major key interludes that suggest the soulful work of Thee Midnighters produce an uneasy feeling. Haunting organ, bluesy guitar, an ominous lyric, a spoken section heavy with echo, and a key signature that tests the top end of Gonzalez’s natural singing range all add to the song’s dramatic impact.

The Paladins are back. Let’s hope these two excellent songs presage a full-length album. In the meantime, this boss single is a limited edition release, so get it while you can.

TOM HYSLOP

I bought this single from the Lux Records Web site.