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The hard-copy of Blues In The South (BITS) carries regular reviews of CDs and other media. The following is a sample of reviews we have published recently.

The Cash Box Kings       Royal Mint           Alligator Records     ASIN: B071187MPS

Cash Box Kings are led by the excellent youngish harmonica player Joe Nosek and the rather older singer Oscar Wilson and together they play authentic Chicago blues - listen to “Flood” pure classic Muddy Waters - as well as rocking R&B - check out opener Amos Milburn’s “House Party”. The band also includes versatile guitarists Joel Paterson and Billy Flynn, drummers Kenny “Beedy Eyes” Smith (Willie ‘Big Eyes’ Smith’s son) and Mark Haines, with Brad Ber on bass and Lee Kanehira replacing the late exemplary Barrelhouse Chuck on keyboards. They also cover Robert Johnson “Travelling Riverside Blues” and Jimmy Reed’s "I'm Gonna Get My Baby” but it isn't all classic covers they also include their own songs like “Build That Wall” which contains the lines “Go on build that wall/ mistreat people with brown skin but most of all: you can ignore what Jesus said /you know the poor are better off dead. /Come on now USA let's build that wall.” Their own songs aren't backward looking, as in "If You Got a Jealous Woman Facebook Ain't Your Friend" and "Blues for Chi-Raq" has a modern brass-fuelled funky sound. This is an excellent record with some great playing from all involved and the Kings seem to be able to take on any blues style with Wilson’s vocals giving everything an authentic feel.

Graham Harrison

Sonny Landreth   Recorded Live in Lafayette     PROVOGUE RECORDS ASIN: B0719BGC1Q

Sonny recorded this double album live in Lafayette (where he actually lives) with his trio, Dave Ranson on (ukulele) bass and Brian Brignac on cajón, as well as guests Steve Conn on accordion and keyboards and Sam Broussard on acoustic guitar. The album reflects the live show in that it starts with Sonny playing acoustic guitar before he eventually turns to his more familiar electric, even songs originally recorded on electric ("Blues Attack" from his first album) still sound great on acoustic and the slightly low key band means that the focus is very much on Sonny's guitar, although Conn's accordion does add a nice extra voice and a link to Sonny's zydeco past. The material is mainly Sonny's own songs from throughout his career with a couple of old blues favourites "Key to the Highway" and Robert Johnson's "Walking Blues". As always Sonny's slide playing is exemplary, when he plays acoustic you can hear the stripped back sound of the guitar with minimal processing and marvel at his technique, his playing is both highly original while also paying homage to his blues heroes. His vocals have also improved considerably since his early albums and the band play their part here in very sympathetically backing up the leader. When he straps on the electric guitar for ‘Back To Bayou Teche’ from his 1992 album ‘Outward Bound’ we hear the full spectrum of his playing with his amazing guitar tone that perfectly recreates the studio sound of his guitar on this live recording. Listen to his playing on the instrumental ‘Überesso’ -subtle and lyrical but also powerful and expressive, and at times almost unrecognisable as a guitar. I would have liked to have heard a few new songs on this album but this is definitely one that fans of Sonny’s guitar playing will enjoy, with examples of his acoustic and electric playing plus a few new twists on old material all delivered to a very enthusiastic home crowd.

Graham Harrison

Jason Ricci & The Bad Kind      Approved By Snakes       Ellersoul Records/City Hall      ASIN: B0724ZYZ5L

Although I've been aware of Jason Ricci as an excellent young(ish) harmonica player for a number of years this is the first album of his that I've actually heard. From the first track “ My True Love is a Dope Whore” we get X-rated earthy lyrics and a very down-home, swampy sound that pervades the whole record. Jason has a very individual harmonica sound, with quite a lot of treble and gain compared to other players but he certainly gets the power and is very fast and accurate - listen to his work on the semi-instrumental "Listen Hear" by jazz sax player Eddie Harris, which also features the rest of the band - Adam Baumol on drums, Andy Kurz on bass and John Lisi and Sammy Hothckiss on guitars.
Other tracks feature the harmonica almost unrecognisable with lots of effects but I liked his subtle, understated playing on the acoustic-ish "Terrors of Nightlife". Many of the songs are very dramatic, with Jason’s heart-felt vocals delivering the lyrics about the seedy-side of life - this is a very original, modern form of blues crossed with jam band excesses  Apart from the all-pervading dark lyrics there is lots of variety here from the jazzy “ “Listen Here” to the reggae of "I Got Cleaned Up" and the quite poppy "My Mom's Gonna Yell at You", with the band adding lots of different textures and guitar sounds.

Graham Harrison

Taj Mahal   Like Never Before & Dancing The Blues (Retroworld FLOATM6292)

Taj Mahal has never really been on to be pigeonholed easily, but these two albums, originally released in 1991 and 1993 respectively, certainly fall into a modern blues category – but as you might expect with Taj, things are not quite as simple as that. On the first set he employs  Sonny Rhodes (particularly impressive on ‘Big Legged Mamas Are Back In Style Again’) and Doctor John for guest appearances, whilst also present are other well-known names like Daryl Hall & John Oates, The Pointer Sisters (who first worked with Taj back in the early 70s) and there is even a pre-fame Sheryl Crow on backing vocals. The songs range from straight blues and remakes of earlier numbers like ‘Cakewalk Into Town’ to reggae and even hip-hop. These are strongly blues inflected – I do remember the boogie based ‘Squat That Rabbit’ (which features DJ Jazzy Jeff) getting a lot of airplay on (I think) Radio London. The second set looks at the blues of the 40s, 50s and 60s, ands right from the opening harp-led ‘Blues Ain’t Nothing’, it is obvious this is a good ‘un. Stylistically it includes Chicago blues, jump-blues, New Orleans R&B, 60s deep soul, rock and roll with Hank Ballard’s ‘The Hoochie Coochie Coo’ and pop-R&B – try ‘Mockingbird, his duet with Etta James on a remake of the Charlie & Inez Foxx classic. In short, for blues lovers this is one of Taj’s best, I think!

Norman Darwen

The Allman Brothers Band   Hell & High Water – The Best Of The Arista Years (Retroworld FLOATM6296)

These days the blues scene has expanded to include some of the bluesinflected rock music of the 60s and 70s in one direction, and “Americana” in another. The Allman Brothers tend to be included in both, though “southern rock” is the category they are usually put into. The band really came to the fore in the early 70s, but the rise of punk rock at the end of that decade dealt bands like this a severe blow. This CD comprises six tracks from 1980’s “Reach For The Sky” and five from 1981’s “Brothers Of The Road”, and although there is certainly a rock bias to much of the music, it is definitely blues-inflected. Lend an ear to ‘I Got A Right To Be Wrong’, the guitar break and wailing harp on ‘Angeline’, and the strutting ‘Leavin’’, almost a template for some of today’s blues-rock. Most of the instrumental breaks are straight blues interludes, and there is plenty of slide guitar here. ‘Never Knew How Much I Loved You (I Needed You)’ is a lovely slab of country-soul to finish off a rather nice set all round. Fans of Eric Clapton might also note that the sound is also sometimes very close to that of Derek & The Dominoes – of course, Duane Allman (who died in October 1971) left a huge mark on the Allman Brothers that is still obvious on this CD… And for those of a much younger generation, yes, the sadly-recently deceased organist and vocalist Gregg Allman was the father of Devon Allman.

Norman Darwen

ROBIN TROWER – Time And Emotion (Manhaton HATMAN 2047)

Robin was the guitarist with sixties hit makers and prog-rock band Procul Harum in their glory days and then moved on to achieve fame with his own power trio, hitting big with his 1974 album “Bridge Of Sighs”. He has kept on producing music consistently – and of a consistently high standard - ever since; he still makes records very much in keeping with the values of his youth. Now aged 72, he has just released this set, still exhibiting a strong Hendrix influence and there are occasional echoes of Albert King in places – try ‘Bitten By The Snake’ for a good example. ‘If You Believe In Me’ starts like a late 60s Stax blues and ends like Pink Floyd, whilst ‘You’re The One’ is very much a very early 70s item. ‘Make Up Your Mind’ is the most straight-forward blues of the set, with Robin’s vocal a little reminiscent of vintage Peter Green and ‘Try Love’ has a strong soul tinge. Surprisingly perhaps, ‘I’m Gone’ has a nod to contemporary sounds. Yes, you do have to have a taste for rock, but this is a lot bluesier than I expected. If you have enjoyed Robin’s music in the past – or you want to hear blues-based music that is subtle and more focussed than most blues-rock, do check this out.

Norman Darwen (www.manhatonrecords.com)

LIGHTNIN’ WILLIE – No Black No White Just Blues (Little Dog, no issue number)

William K. Hermes – a.k.a. Texas-born singer/ guitarist/ songwriter/ bandleader Lightnin’ Willie – has been a remarkably regular visitor to these shores over the last couple of decades.  This release, Willie’s eighth, should bring a smile to the face of anyone who has witnessed his shows. His relaxed, smoky vocals are perfectly suited for the kind of richly grooving blues he plays, and he certainly knows his stuff. He can range from the slightly Chuck Berry flavoured opener, ‘Can’t Get That Stuff’, the T-Bone Walker-influenced ‘Locked In A Prison’ and the R&B riffer ‘Heartache’ to the jazzily cool ‘Note On My Door’ and the retro-R&B ballad, ‘Thinking Of You’. Proceedings close out with the powerhouse boogie of ‘Shake My Snake’. He is supported by a tasty little band too, with the in-demand Ron Dziubla on saxes, Doña Oxford on piano (another regular and welcome visitor to the UK), Skip Edwards on Hammond B3 and accordion, a couple of fine drummers, and producer Pete Anderson on bass and harmonica (check out the Little Walter-ish ‘Eyes In The Back Of My Head’). The album only runs to a minute short of half an hour, but maybe that is just to show that good things come in small packages.

Norman Darwen (www.lightninwillie.com)

JIM ALLCHIN – Decisions (Sandy Key Music CD-JA004) Former Microsoft executive Jim Allchin has received a lot of acclaim for his blues vocal and high energy electric guitar skills with his previous two blues sets (2011’s ‘”Overclocked” and 2013’s “Q.E.D.”). This set is very much in the same vein, with some fine blues-rock which allows Jim to show off his Albert King and Albert Collins flavoured playing to good effect – lend an ear to ‘Blew Me Away’ for just one example. Unfortunately ‘She Is It’ is a paean to his lady love that is a little out of place, as too is the tender and undeniably heartfelt ‘My Father’s Eyes’, but Jim makes amends with the rocking instrumental ‘Just Plain Sick’, the almost five minutes long powerful slow blues of ‘Friends’, the majestic ‘Stop Hurting Me’ (excellent horns and a top-notch, ever so slightly under-stated vocal) and the rather straightforward retro blues sound of ‘You Might Be Wrong’. Produced by drummer Tom
Hambridge (one of the men of the moment for this role), the album’s backing musicians include the likes of keyboards player Reese Wynans and “The Heart Attack Horns”, creating a big sound. Also present is bluesman Keb’ Mo’, in a vocal duet with Jim on ‘Healing Ground’. Certainly lovers of the modern blues should check this album out.

Norman Darwen (www.jimallchin.com)

Micki Free       Tattoo Burn Redux    Mysterium Blues Records MBR1001

Born in West Texas, of Native American descent, Micki spent his formative years in Europe where his stepfather, a sergeant in the American army, was stationed. It was while the family were in Germany that he first saw Jimi Hendrix live  on stage courtesy of one of his five sisters who was given the tickets by their step father, from that moment on he was determined to become a guitar player of renown. The family relocated to Illinois when he was a teenager. Whilst there, the heady lure of the many blues clubs in the area  spurred Micki on to form his own band Smokehouse, who went on to share the stage with Ted Nugent, Rush, REO Speedwagon, KISS and a fledgling Cheap Trick. (Kiss’s Gene Simmons was so taken with this talented seventeen year old guitarist that he later became his manager). Micki then became an integral member of Shalamar, later he was awarded a Grammy for his soundtrack to the film Beverly Hills Cop, also, over the years he has worked with artists such as; Prince, Crown Of Thorns and Santana. Now, he has produced his new eleven track blues rock roller that immediately grabs your attention with his ever so familiar thick guitar tones comfortingly dominating  the first number “God Is On The Phone”,  the alluring gospel infused, slow funk creeps upon and seeps slowly into you until you are lost in the groove. This mood continues with “Tattoo Burn”, the rich, thick addictively trembling guitar sweetly chugs along courtesy of Billy Gibbons while Micki’s wailing guitar and an urging bass reminds one of his Native American forefathers. “Six Feet Down In The Blues”, intros and lurks melancholically throughout with a slow burning and cooking Hammond organ while a wailing painful guitar rises and falls as a plaintive piano weaves in and out. Continuing this almost morose mood is the Muddy Waters influenced harmonica led Chicago slowburner “Mojo Black Coffee”, Randy Singer achingly brings a raw and painful harmonica sound alongside the sweet mellow vocals. The only cover here is Jimi Hendrix’s "Hey Baby (The New Rising Sun)", Unlike some other Hendrix covers this version is understated both vocally and instrumentally, which in my mind makes it immensely listenable and thoroughly enjoyable, the fireworks are there and sparkle brightly. Greatly Endorsed!

Brian Harman.

Mark Cameron        Playing Rough     Cop Records LPM 1677

Mark and the band are based in Minnesota and they include Mark; guitars and lead vocals, Sheri Cameron; flute, Bill Keyes; harmonica, Scott Lundberg; bass and Dan Schroeder on drums. Since the early seventies the individual band members have been in differing bands delivering over the years a vast array of musical hues and styles, working, learning, recording and performing on the road when family commitments have permitted. Now these seasoned musicians have reached a point where all their experiences and skills have come to the fore, gelling into a tight, rolling blues outfit that provides far more than a faded musical fresco, to the casual listener. There are twelve original numbers here that grab your attention whether it is fifties Memphis, the deep delta or a chain gang chant; no, right from the outset, you are under a spell, starting with the piano rolling and drum pounding of  “Doctor In The House”, which leads into a fast paced duel between an arresting crunching boogie guitar and a hopping and bopping harmonica. A romantic loping and swaying feel is deeply infused into “Almost”, a sad tale of a nearly had and definitely lost love affair that slips away on the waltzing organ, tearful piano and sobbing guitar and melancholy, lip quivering vocals. “Rusty Old Model T”, is in the same vein but, the quarrelsome lovers will never part, the pleasantly raucous washboard work and resonator guitar lifts your spirits up no end. The band has such confidence in their material and their own abilities that they command your attention, regardless of the genre they play in, one fine example is the tribute to the memory of B.B. King where the slow burning processional building “Bluesmans Lullaby”, begins with spacious drum-work, low bass and gentle acoustic guitar underpin softly rising, plaintive vocals, a melancholy sawing harmonica and ephemeral flute, waft and rise to the heavens confirming that a bluesman’s journey never ends.  The title “Playing Rough”,
concerns a rocky relationship that sadly descends downwards. The wading drum work and bass underpins a swaggering, brawling guitar that duets with a strident, interjecting harmonica. The undoubted centrepiece and star of the set is “Close My Eyes “, stomping boards envisage the degrading ominous sound of slow marching in leg irons, and rattling chains send unpleasant ripples down your spin; almost soulless and lost empty acappella voices, display a spirited refusal to give in to oppression. Greatly Endorsed!

Brian Harman.

Joakim Tinderholt  Hold On   RBR-5821   Rhythm Bomb Records

Joakim Tinderholt and his band hail from Norway.  Their first album, “You Gotta Do More” was greeted by one German critic with the accolade, "Grandiose debut! Perhaps the discovery of the year". But that was three years ago. Here is a new one and IMHO, it is one of those, sometimes too rare,  cases where the second album outshines the first by a significant degree.
  All the songs are original and they are expert;y recorded. There is a delightful touch of 50/60 rock ‘n’ roll in the arrangements and Joakim delivers some fiery axe work to back up that contention. His vocals are nicely judged and well delivered.  Check out the jump blues influenced Anything Is Better Then Nothing, which comes with a good dollop of a T-Bone Walker type guitar part. My fave though is the track called Jungle Bo, backed, of course, by a  ‘shave and a haircut two bits’ rhythm It is surprise!, a tribute to Bo Diddley. Poor Side of Town is a a delightful song in the mould of Sam Cook, reverb and all.  This young man is a world class performer.  I hope he gets the breaks.

Ian K McKenzie

George Thorogood  Party Of One    Rounder

GT released his first album way back in 1977 and since then has never done a solo CD. He became a professional musician after seeing John Hammond Jr and as he says himself , “This is the album I should have made thirty years ago.”
George has here put together a fourteen track album that, while it undoubtedly explores his blues roots (something never too far away from his work with the Destroyers). Includes some other influences, including covers of ‘not really blues’ songs by, Hank Williams (Pictures From Life's Other Side), Johnny Cash (Bad News & Down The Highway),  Jagger/Richards (No Expectation) and a delightful version of a Gary Nicholson/Alan Shamblin song, Soft Spot . Blues songs include tracks from Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, John Lee Hooker,  and John Lee with Earl, to say nothing of RJ, Elmore James and Willie Dixon.  What a wonderful selection. The singing is controlled and masterful (as you would expect from somebody with 8000 shows under his belt) and the guitar work, mostly acoustic is excellent. There is some overdubbing of electric guitar on some tracks and ALL the other instrumentation was done by George.  Outstanding!!

Ian K. McKenzie

SINGLE: Debbie Bond.  Winds Of Change Debbie Bond with her partner Rick Asherson take the political road here in a song that bewails the direction the world is taking with regard tp climate change.  The wind of change is taking us “…in the wrong direction”. This is a wonderful song, delivered with passion, in a rich contralto. It  might also serve as a metaphor for world wide concerns about the general direction of American governance. But that’s me. Hell of a singer. Hell of a song.  Hell of problem. Download from all the usual sources

Ian K. McKenzie

Davis Coen These Things Shall Pass Soundview SP1008

It has been a long term aim of Davis to record an album that solely references and features a mixture of gospel and spiritual numbers and here with this, his tenth album he has fulfilled this ambition, Which ( I must say) is not only very pleasing but is also spiritually uplifting. The Oxford, Mississippi born singer draws fully upon his life experiences, the strong religious influences of the South that existed in his youth still continue to thrive today, the faith and ethos it carried with it, is unchanged and resonates as strongly as ever it was. Davis is one of those musicians that has been around for years but, apparently only a select number of people seem to have known about him but fortunately, one of those people was Martin Scorsese and the quality of his playing saw Davis being featured in the soundtrack of his PBS documentary ‘The Blues’. The ten numbers here are a mixture of traditional and contemporary, fusing seamlessly together. The seriously laid back emotional combination of Southern soul infused guitar work with swaying and almost drifting organ, gently oozes numbers like “Working For Jesus”, out of the speakers, the gentle urging vocals of Davis easily coaxes you into lustily singing  the chorus after only a few hearings. “Saint Christopher”, is an immediately infectious, jaunty, piano led, rolling honky-tonk that invites you and the patron saint of travellers to take a journey across the Delta. Joining Davis is a fine collection of Mississippi based musicians including Kell Kellum on pedal steel guitarist and mandolin player Jonny Ciaramitar. Two rather splendid traditional Country Spirituals are “The Old Rugged Cross”, which is highly impressive and causes one to pause for thought, and “These Things Shall Pass”, features the hypnotic combination of a sweetly ringing steel guitar with a tightly crisp, mandolin.  “Lord, Let Me Do It Right”, confidently grabs you by the ears with its stirring echoes of vintage Rhythm and Blues. The solitary Southern piano beginning on the splendid ballad “The Lesser Man”, exemplifies the struggling emotions within the life and church of the common man, as the number expands with thumping percussion, a strident guitar soars and falls and as it does a warming organ and piano gently brings back our humility and faith. Greatly Endorsed!

Brian Harman.

Bobby Messano Bad Movie The Prince Frog Record Company BM1 41517

Teaneck, New Jersey born Bobby Messano began his career back in nineteen seventy-six when he became part of the band Stanky Brown who during the seventies toured with high profile bands Boston, The Allman Brothers and The Outlaws. Over the years he has become recognised as a contemporary blues artist but, he has also widened his horizons by acting as the musical director for artists such as; Steve Winwood, Lou Gram and Country artists Jimmy Wayne Rodney Atkins and Steve Holly, during these tenures he has found time to record and release seven solo albums of his own. Now, with this new release, he has put together fifteen numbers mostly written by Bobby and Jon Tiven which certainly are worth more than a second hearing. There definitely are many influences and echoes here, for instance, the splendidly soaring Hendrix infused ballad “Why Water A Dead Rose”, the crisp, solitary solid ringing guitar work and accompanying distinctive thumping percussion solidly backs a gentle and heartfelt vocal. The title number “Bad Movie”, is a blasting Texas blues stomper with a loud, proud, trembling, wailing guitar that certainly takes no prisoners. There is some excellently enticing Mississippi Hill Country acoustic guitar work to be found on the seriously foot-tapping “Road To Oblivion”, “Too Good To Be True”, is a very fine Memphis influenced funker that struts its stuff in true seventies style, cool laid  back vocals confidently backed with thumping drum work, while a sinewy and crisply entwining ringing guitar demands to be heard. The ever enticing, thumping and grinding Bo Diddley beat is blisteringly unleashed upon a twenty-first century audience with  “If The Phone Ain’t Ringing, It’s Me Not Callin’’. “Water Under The Bridge”, is one of the two duets with Muscle Shoals based Alecia Elliot, which is indeed a lovely, gentle country ballad that focuses upon the current American political situation. “The Girl That Got Away”, is a sombre reflective late night smoke filled tramping moody slow burner, the guitar is in very fine T Bone Walker mode. The optimistic blue collar “American Spring”, is a present day rallying cry to the masses, the lyrics, ringing guitars and punching percussion will, I feel ensure crowd approval. Greatly Endorsed!

Brian Harman.

Vintage#18 Grit Self Produced 1-91061-44676-7

This is the debut album from Robbin Kapsalis; Lead vocals, Bill Holter; guitars, Alex Kulddell; drums and percussion and Mark Chandler; bass, keyboards and slide. They have been performing together since two thousand and thirteen, the band started in the clubs near their home in Northern Virginia. Residencies in Washington, D.C., Maryland and Virginia have more than ensured that the band has a healthy following.; Now after a kick-starter funding campaign they have put together nine compelling original numbers and two fine covers. They also, appear to have successfully avoided the all too obvious trap of pigeon-holing their style into one genre and subsequently seamlessly slide to wherever they want to go. They evidently, from the numbers here, have a musical soft spot for the Blues, Soul and Funk infused sixties and seventies, they also liberally mix-in a laid back Jazz feel to their sound. Robbin possesses a strongly commanding but yet, soft and sensuous vocal range that is not dissimilar to one Joan Armatrading. Within the band there is a solid and captivating rhythm section, unhurried but purposeful while the authoritative and laid back guitar work has the air of carefree picking. “Diamonds Are Optional”, starts us off with a crisp, funk groove that simply oozes from the speakers. The warm seductive voice of Robbin fires up on the foot tapping and steadily striding “Is This Too Good To Be True”,  the richly deep thick Jazzy bassline and driving rocking percussion inescapably draws you hopelessly into its’ sweetly enticing web. Dylan’s “Million Miles”, is re-configured into a sombre, smouldering slow burning Blues that has a captivatingly plodding bass line that introduces a blistering and building, soul searching emotion filled fiery slide that is completely and utterly absorbing. The immensely enjoyable “Circles”, possesses a bouncing and captivating Sun Studios Rockabilly feel that has you dancing around the room. ZZ Top’s “Just Got Back From Baby’s”, has been wonderfully re-worked as a low down and dirty guitar burning slow burner with irresistibly flowing Jazz inflections that creates a splendidly spiraling feel. “Circles Down Home”. is rightly dominated by the combination of raw low level burning slide and the equally raw and emotional vocals of Robbin who together describe an unpleasant life that is definitely going nowhere. Greatly Endorsed!

Brian Harman.

Music From The American Epic Sessions (Deluxe) Columbia ASIN: B0725538L1

This 2xCD set ties in with the ‘American Epic’ documentary TV series which tells the story of record companies going out and conducting field recording sessions of blues, country and other roots music in the 1920s and also includes vinyl reissues of old recordings by artists featured in the series. The CDs feature contemporary artists performing old songs from this era recorded on reconstructed vintage recording equipment, as seen in the series. I’m a sucker for this type of project, although I’m the first to admit that these things often look good on paper but don’t always live up to the hype.
From the opening track, the Alabama Shakes’ storming version of Memphis Minnie’s “Killer Diller Blues” this sounds like a winner and the second track, the unlikely combination of rapper Nas and the Memphis Jug Band’s ‘On the Road Again”, is even better as it perfectly demonstrates a continuing thread running through black music from the earliest times until the present day. I was a bit uncertain about the combination of blues and country material that forms the bulk of the tracks here but actually it makes for a pleasing variety of music, with several of the artists - Rhiannon Giddens, Pokey Lafarge, Frank Fairfield – already bridging the two genres in their own work. Everyone will have there own favourites here – for me one of the real highlights was Betty Lavette, her wrecked shell of a voice has been heard to great effect in recent years on beautifully produced soulful versions of modern pop classics but here she sings the blues very movingly over an acoustic backing. Elton John also steps up to the plate together with Jack White with “Two Fingers of Whiskey” – the best thing I’ve heard him do for years - Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard do what they do, albeit with a slightly more old-timey vibe, ditto Steve Martin and Edie Brickell. And Blind Boy Paxton with his very authentic rendition of Mississippi John Hurt’s “Candy Man” takes you right back to the 1920’s as if the last 90 years had never happened. This is an interesting project that for me is mainly successful, I’m afraid that I thought that some of the tracks didn’t quite come off but in general there is a nice variety here from the blues to gospel, from country to Cajun, as well as Hawaiian and Mexican music. The CDs come with a booklet giving fairly sparse acknowledgements, details of the players and pictures of some of the artists involved.

Graham Harrison

American Epic: The Best Of Lead Belly Third Man Records     ASIN: B071KZVM5J

Here’s another fine album from the ‘American Epic’ TV series, this time featuring Huddie ''Lead Belly’’ Ledbetter.  Lead Belly was discovered by Alan Lomax and was widely recorded in the 1930s and the 1940s.  When I was a teenage blues fan in the 1960s an older blues collector asked me what blues I liked, I was going to answer “Everything from Lead Belly to John Mayall” but after I said ‘Lead Belly’ he interrupted me and said that Lead Belly wasn’t a blues singer but was in fact a ‘songster’.  If I’d have had this record I could have used it to show him that he was indeed also very much a blues singer as nearly every song here is a blues. I don’t have fancy hi-fi equipment so I can’t comment on the sonic quality of this re-mastered vinyl release but the original recordings have been cleaned up so that both the power of his voice and the intricacy of his guitar playing is clearly evident.  However, I’m afraid that I miss his more ‘songster’ songs, the popular and folk songs that he also sang - “Goodnight Irene”, “Pick a Bale of Cotton”, “Take This Hammer” etc.  I think that this would have been a better collection if some of these more popular and melodic songs had been interspersed with the blues but Lead Belly is still a hugely significant artist – both as a very charismatic performer and also as a wonderful song-writer and he is always worth hearing.

Graham Harrison

American Epic: The Best Of Memphis Jug Band Third Man Records      ASIN: B072L7FHN8

This vinyl record ties in with the ‘American Epic’ TV series which tells the story of record companies going out and recording blues, country and jazz on location in the 1920s and is part of the series’ associated album reissues as well as new releases.  I’ve always been a fan of the jug bands and while some see them as a lesser, inferior form of blues I’ve always found them to be right up there with the best of blues, ensemble blues if you will – one of the first ‘blues bands'.  For me the jug bands were much more versatile than most blues singers featuring music to dance to (“Memphis Shakedown”) songs with topical lyrics (“Lindberg Hop”) and lots of humour (“He’s in the Jailhouse Now”) as well as straight blues (“Newport News Blues”). And make no mistake about it the Memphis Jug Band were the best jug band, featuring as they did excellent musicians like Will Shade and Charlie Burse and a string of wonderful, original songs such as the very catchy “Stealin, Stealin’” and “Cocaine Habit Blues” (Take a Whiff on Me).  I don’t have fancy hi-fi equipment so I can’t comment on the sonic quality of this re-mastered vinyl release but in the past my enjoyment of jug band recordings has been slightly diminished because of the bad quality of the original recordings but here the songs are beautifully cleaned up.  If I was being picky I could question the selection and the absence of some of my personal favourites “Kansas City Blues” (which is featured in the film(!?) and “Jug Band Waltz” but for me any release by the Memphis Jug Band always warrants at least five stars.

Graham Harrison

TajMo  (Taj Mahal and Keb’ Mo’) Decca (UMO) ASIN: B06XDV48M

I'm more of a Taj Mahal fan than a Keb' Mo' fan and I feel that on this record Keb's is the dominant influence, which leads to a general 'politeness' and blandness, although everything is very well-played and well-produced. My favourite song was probably the re-working of the old Sleepy John Estes' song "Diving Duck Blues" which Taj has covered before, this version with both men sharing the vocals has a nice relaxed vibe with nice slide guitar. I also liked "That's Who I Am" which seemed like a good 50/50 split of both men's styles and the old Who song "Squeeze Box" was an unlikely choice and just about works - albeit that it is a bit gimmicky. I'm afraid that I thought that both Bonnie Raitt (On "Waiting for the World to Change") and Lizz Wright (on "Om Sweet Om") were a bit wasted, although Joe Walsh does add some nice guitar flourishes to "Shake Me in Your Arms". Also, since his first album I've been a big fan of Taj's harmonica playing and I was disappointed that he doesn't play harp here - although Billy Branch and Lee Oscar do sub for him. I did also like the relaxed bluesy version of Piano Red's "She Knows How to Rock Me" with Taj being the dominant voice and I thought that this should have been the template for the album, rather than Keb's more commercial songs with their more poppy arrangements - although I can see that these songs will boost sales figures rather than a more blues-based recording. Taj does fit in well with Keb's songs and the combination of the two men's styles does produce a record with a nice variety, with a mix of sparse acoustic songs and those with more complex arrangements complete with brass, back-up singers etc.

Graham Harrison

Harrison Kennedy Who U Tellin’ Electro-Fi     ASIN: B06XJT2GHG

This is Harrison's seventh solo album and one of his most raw and bluesy, the former member of the soul group Chairman of the Board plays banjo, harmonica, spoons, acoustic guitar and tambourine and sings every track with a voice that is very strong and characterful. Also contributing are Jimmy Bowskill on fiddle & mandolin, Jack de Keyser on electric, acoustic and slide guitar, Julian Fauth on piano and Alec Fraser on cigar box bass. Many tracks on the album reminded me of the trance blues Otis Taylor on tracks like "Keep Your Coat On" and in truth I could have done with a bit less banjo which makes the album sound a bit samey. When they leave the banjo/harmonica sound for the country sound of "Mountain Storm" it was a nice change and "Long Pants" reminded me of Taj Mahal, with Harrison singing the blues over Julian Fauth's boogie piano. "Heavy Load" and "Doctors in Hard Hats" both go for a more electric sound which is also a nice contrast to the other country blues. Harrison's harmonica playing isn't the best but it fits with the general down-home vibe of the album, ditto his guitar and banjo playing. Harrison also delivers the song "Patches" - a hit for Clarence Carter but originally recorded by Chairman of the Board - as a spoken sermon and surprisingly, he gets away with it.

Graham Harrison

Vintage #18 Grit (Own label 1-91061-44676-7)

This is the first time I have come across Washington DC four-piece outfit Vintage #18, but I am pretty sure it won’t be the last. Fronted by the versatile and excellent Chicago-born and Atlanta-raised blues singer Robbin Kapsalis – a real blues singer, not a rock or soul singer masquerading as one – the band lay down a stripped back programme of mostly original blues plus covers from ZZ Top (the slow grooving ‘Just Got Back From Baby’s) and Bob Dyla, ‘’Million Miles’ – also a lovely slow groove). Although this outfit is undoubtedly a blues band, they have a distinctively individual sound, based around Bill Holter’s original guitar work – he can riff slowly and simply, or soar with a busy, supercharged solo as necessary. The rhythm section sets the tempo and let the music develop: kudos to Alex Kuldell on drums – listen to the way he plays marching drums on the close of ‘Million Miles’ - and bassist/ keyboards player/ slide guitarist Mark Chandler, who has worked with Charley Sayles. To sum up, this is a fine set, a little different from most blues releases, and given the amount of material issued these days, that is no bad thing at all.

Norman Darwen (www.vintage18.net)

Micki Free Tattoo Burn Redux (Mysterium Blues MBR 1001)

The purist in me was pretty sure I wasn’t going to like this. The cover sticker talks about the opening duet with Howard Hewett of Shalamar – not a blues group, as I recall – and Micki himself was discovered and managed by Gene Simmons of Kiss. Some might be impressed, but not this reviewer, definitely not… But then I actually got round to playing the CD, and all was forgiven. This is actually a strong contemporary blues set, and with some pretty traditional elements too. The set opens with a very bluesy modern gospel anthem ‘God Is On The Phone’ and closes out with a gentler side of Micki than tends to be shown by everything that comes in between. He references Jimi Hendrix on ‘Hey Baby (The New Rising Sun) (Remix)’ – note to self: don’t always ignore anything that has the word “Remix” in the title – whilst ‘Tattoo Burn’ has a strong blues-rock arrangement, though drawing heavily on the traditional blues itself, as also evidenced on ‘Greens & Barbeque’ and particularly the slow ‘Six Feet Down In The Blues’. ‘Mojo Black Coffee’ is a stop-time blues in best Muddy Waters mode (nice harp by Randy Singer too), ‘Co-Co Gin’ is a little more sophisticated, the five and a half minutes long ‘There’s A Hole In The Heart Of The Blues’ is back in heavy mode, and the distorted guitar intro to ‘Angels In The Room’ gives way to a more considered number, before ‘Five Minutes To Christmas’ is a fine, almost straightforward blues shuffle. Backing musicians include bassist Bill Wyman, Carlos Santana’s wife Cindy Blackman-Santana on drums and numerous others. Hell, yes, I enjoyed it!

Norman Darwen (www.mickifree.com)

Nikki O’Neill Love Will Lead You Home (Own label)

Los Angeles based singer/ guitarist/ songwriter/ contributor to Guitar Player magazine describes this six track EP as “a soul-rock and gospel album” and it has also been referred to as a combination of Chrissie Hynde, Mavis Staples and Al Green (and John Lennon and Otis Redding have also been pressed into service in the past). Both of these specifications capture the spirit of Nikki’s music rather neatly. It is raw and rootsy, Americana rather than blues maybe but certainly with a huge soul influence, with a conscience and a positive message, and some neat hooks. ‘In The Waking Moments Of The Day’ has a slight jazz tinge whilst the guitar work on ‘Love Will Lead You Home’ definitely has a strong influence from Curtis Mayfield. ‘I Will Cross Over’ has a lovely soul feel on a bouncy rhythm, with the backing vocals adding a classic gospel feel to a memorable and catchy number, with Nikki’s exuberant vocal subtly taking her higher. I enjoyed this release a lot – let’s hope we hear more from this talented lady soon (please).

Norman Darwen (www.nikkioneill.com)

Laura Tate Let’s Just Be Real (811 Gold Records)

And that’s just what Dallas, Texas based singer Laura is here, tackling real music – soul and blues mostly, either strutting coquettishly as on ‘I’ll Find Someone Who Will’ or getting nicely mellow as on the melodic ‘If That Ain’t Love’. Hitting on Nothing’ comes from Irma Thomas and certainly keeps a New Orleans flavour. For examples of her blues approach, try ‘Still Got The Blues’, and the lovely slow blues, ‘I Need A Man’ or for a more jumping sound, try ‘Big Top Hat’. For something a little different, there is Laura’s supper club styled version of Thin Lizzy’s ‘Boys Are Back In Town – honest! - ‘whilst the closer, ‘Wildest Dreams’ moves into Cyndi Lauper pop territory – definitely quite a change and totally unexpected, judging from what has gone before! Laura has some of today’s top musicians backing her here: Teresa James on backing vocals, Tony Braunagel on drums, and Lee Thornberg supplying brass, among others, and the result is a top quality release. Recommended indeed.

Norman Darwen (www.musicbylauratate.com)

Low Society Sanctified (Rezonate32017)

This CD opens with a prime piece of Americana, an excellent cover of John Prine’s ‘Angel From Montgomery’, beautifully sung by Mandy Lemons from Houston, Texas. It closes with the deep soul of ‘I’d Rather Go Blind’, again a top-notch vocal performance, drawing on both Etta James and Janis Joplin on aural evidence, with guitarist Sturgis Nikides also supplying some excellent, very controlled guitar work. The mid-point of the album is marked by ‘Nina’, a tribute to Nina Simone, though the acoustic based track does not really draw on her musically. In between these are a couple of Mississippi hill country styled numbers – ‘Raccoon Song’ is a real stomper with shades of John Lee Hooker – and the acoustic number ‘New York City Boy’, the fine slow, slinky blues of ‘The Freeze’ and the infectious Louisiana sounds (both New Orleans and zydeco – the band’s keyboards player Rick Steff supplies the rocking accordion playing) of ‘Here Comes The Flood’. Recorded both in Belgium and American Recording Studio, Memphis, this is, in short, a really enjoyable and varied album.

Norman Darwen (wwwscreaminblues.com)


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