Album Reviews

Eliza Neals 10,000 Feet Below (E-H Records)

Another fine blues-rock outing from the talented Detroit-based Eliza Neals. Down at the Crossroads liked her last album, Breaking and Entering, and noted her powerful raw and emotional vocals. We get some more of that to enjoy here too, in eleven songs, ten of which are originals, written or co-written by Neals. The other song is Skip JamesHard Killing Floor, a reverb-drenched, piano-driven affair, which Neals pulls off with some aplomb, aided by Howard Glazer’s penetrating solo guitar.

Glazer’s guitar work throughout the album is quite outstanding and is given full reign on Call Me Moonshine. Responsible for co-writing three of the songs, Glazer’s blazing guitar drives this album of blues rock superbly, but never overpowers the songs’ arrangements or Neals’ classy vocals.

There are guest appearances from Johnny Winter guitarist, Paul Nelson, who plays some tasty acoustic guitar on Cold Cold Night and legendary R&B guitarist Billy Davis who graces the final track At the Crossroads.

Don’t be put off by the cover of this album – the music is terrific, the songs strong and Eliza Neals is the real deal.

Jo Harman: People We Become (Total Creative Feed)

jo-harman-people-we-become“Sometimes you hear a voice that leaves you speechless,” said Huey Morgan of the Fun Loving Criminals recently.  He’s right of course. The voice is that of Jo Harman, English born but channelling Memphis, Detroit and Nashville in her genre busting, but soulful, latest album, People We Become. We were very taken with her 2013 album, Dirt On My Tongue and commented back then, “Her star is in the ascendant, built on determined hard work, impressive song-writing skills, a terrific backing band and – most of all, that voice. Sweet, sultry, powerful, bluesy, soulful – Jo Harman’s got it all.”

If anyone were to doubt that, this new release proves it – in spades. This builds on the quality and promise of the previous album, but more than that, it is an artist at the very top of her game, going deep emotionally, lyrically and musically.  The ten songs, all originals, will, in turns, touch you, stir you, make you hopeful – and are, above all, hugely enjoyable. The album as a whole has all the hallmarks of a classic, harking back to an earlier age when albums were important and not just downloads to be consumed. Other reviewers have made comparisons of Jo Harman with Carole King and Joni Mitchell. That’s not hyperbole – there is something very special here, with a formidable musical talent in terms of song writing, singing and performance.

The album was recorded in Nashville with renown producer Fred Mollin, and features a host of talented musicians. It starts intriguingly, with Harman singing faintly as from an old phonograph, before the drums and guitar begin throbbing as a prelude to the song, No One Left to Blame, proper. The tension builds up before breaking again in the soaring, melodious chorus – “I’m never gonna give you up.” By the end of the song you’re singing along. The next track, Silhouettes of You, is musically quite intricate and very beautiful, and you are reminded along the way of Janis Ian. Lend Me Your Love clocks in at over seven minutes, but Harman’s voice over the simple piano chords at the beginning which build to include guitars, horns and harmony vocals, along with the sophistication of the musical composition, easily carries you through. We’re in Susan Tedeschi territory here, with bluesy, soulful textures.

jo-harmanOn Unchanged and Alone, Harman sings sweetly over a lightly strummed guitar, the song again building in instrumentation and emotion, with the vocals rising in intensity. Reformation shows Harman just as at home in a guitar and drums driven rocker, while in Changing of the Guard she gives us a timeless classic, a song you feel you knew and loved in your youth, but which stands the test of time. Person of Interest is a sparse, jazzy affair, just the expressive vocals and guitar, while When We Were Young, a duet with Michael McDonald from the Doobie Brothers, with its Motown overtones, is the nearest we get to pop on the album. It’s a terrific song, it’ll have you moving whatever bit of you you like to move, before it morphs into the bluesy piano and vocals just towards its conclusion. Some delightful solo guitar takes us into The Final Page, full of heartache and yearning, before the final song, Lonely Like Me, with its lovely gospel harmonies and bitter sweet tone, rounds things off.

All these songs are sophisticated musically, yet utterly engaging – that’s why People We Become, though immediately enjoyable, continues to reward subsequent plays; and why you’ll still be listening to it years from now. It is elegantly crafted, full of depth with authentic, real music, and mature and quite compelling singing.

 

 

Thornetta Davis – Honest Woman (Sweet Mama Music)

thornettaWow – what a talent Thornetta Davis is! A real, live blues diva. Thornetta’s sister introduces her at the start of the album – “She sings with such sweet passion…she sings out notes that make you wanna jump and shout…she sure can sing the blues!” It’s all true – passion, fun, sass, soul – it’s all here in Thornetta Davis’s performance in an album that will draw you in, move you, and get your feet dancing.

There are twelve songs, all originals, written or co-written by Davis and showcasing her considerable song writing skills, all well arranged and produced. The band is terrific and includes some tasteful – never too prominent – horn and harmonica playing and some wonderful gospel backing vocals. Special mention must be made of Brett Lucas’s guitar work throughout – it’s very tasty indeed. His background work on the spoken first track gives a hint of things to come and from the opening lick of I Gotta Sang the Blues, you know there are great things to come.

We get Davis’ approach to the blues in this first song – “bad times, they come and they go…when living the blues gets too rough,  I got to sing the blues.” Here she reflects the way the blues have been used time and time again – enabling the singer to sing their way out of the hard times. “I refuse to stay in the past,” she sings, defying life’s troubles and difficulties to try and overcome her. We get the same sentiment, with a whole lot of fun in Get Up and Dance Away Your Blues.

There’s an upbeat, bold attitude right throughout the album – in That Don’t Appease Me, a put-down to a lying, cheating lover; in Am I Just A Shadow, where she asks defiantly, why “you choose to take it all out on me?”; and in I’d Rather Be Alone – “it’s too late baby, I don’t need you no more.”

There’s some inspirational gospel here too. Ms. Davis writes on her cover notes, “Thank you God for keeping me and walking with me through the journey.” She goes on to talk about the joy in her life that her faith has brought. That is reflected in Set Me Free, which begins with some wonderful gospel harmonies and then morphs into a funky, gospel driven song of inspiration, aided and abetted by Brett’s soul-piercing guitar – “Please come down and set me free…I want to be a part of your greater plan…now I’m down on my knees.”  And in the rocking, toe-tapping I Believe Everything Gonna Be Alright: “Joy’s gonna come in the morning light,” Thornetta thornhwcover_site2sings, echoing Psalm 30 v5 (“Weeping may tarry for the night, but joy comes with the morning”). Then we get Brother Charlie who needs some food – “I reached in my pocket and gave him what I had.” These lyrics and the joyous, buoyant tone of the song had me thinking of Acts 20:35 – it is better to give than to receive. And then there’s the final song, Feels Like Religion, funky, soulful, again with those gorgeous gospel backing vocals, where “it’s getting clearer, ain’t no cloudiness in my mind…love has set me free, I got religion.”

But there’s a lot of good fun on this album too, on the sassy I Need a Whole Lotta Lovin’ To Satisfy Me, and Get Up and Dance Away Your Blues. And worthy of note is the title track, the quite beautiful Honest Woman, inspired by her husband James. Again that cool, gospel vibe, lovely backing vocals, all wrapped up in a musical arrangement that has you smiling and ready to hit the reply button at the end of the song.

This is a very fine album; a keeper, and a fine showcase for the vocal and song writing talents of Ms. Davis, not to mention the musical talent of her band.

 

Blues Is the New Cool            Kat & Co

What a treat this album is! Blues is indeed the new cool in the hands of this tightly-knit band of excellent, multinational musicians, led by singer Kathleen Pearson. Featuring the very talented Francesco Accurso on guitar, Federico Parodi on keyboards, Nick Owsianka on drums and Marco Marzola on bass, this album delivers on its title’s promise – big time.

We get twelve songs, all but two originals, that are clearly the blues, but it’s modern blues – cool blues – which draws you in, speaks to you and lifts your spirits. The album kicks off ambitiously with Albert King’s Born under a Bad Sign. But we needn’t worry, its funky reworking and the lovely searing guitar work delivers the goods. In Calling Your Name, the skills of Kat & Co’s drummer and organist are to the fore, along with Kat’s well phrased vocals. Bedroom Floor is then introduced by some dirty slide guitar, leading into a guitar driven rocker, before Selfish Blues changes the mood, giving us a jazzy, night-time blues which gives an opportunity for some slinky singing, bluesy piano and heart-wrenching guitar.

kat_co-photoPrelude to City Burn keeps the slow, simmering mood going for a brief minute or so before the tempo picks up again with the launching of the funky City Burn. Piano and some mournful harmonica introduces a blues of heart break lost love in Nobody Dies For Love – “what an awful place to be.” Whiskey then gives us testifying, church and booze, all in an unholy mixture in a bluesy, organ-led smoulderer.

Shake It All Away hits a hopeful note, even though “life ain’t easy,” and then we have a very cool version of blues pianist Roosevelt Sykes’s Night Time is the Right Time, with some very sweet guitar work. A smoky, jazzy Piano Interlude brings us to the last song, Low Down – “I’m so low down, down to the ground.” It’s the blues all right, but somehow the music takes us out of it.

Kat Pearson’s atmospheric, soulful and powerful singing shine throughout, making this well-arranged and produced album thoroughly satisfying and enjoyable.

 

The Smoke Wagon Blues Band: Cigar Store

“Soulful vocals, funky blues harmonica, slick guitar, swinging piano work, soulful organ, riveting saxophone with a taut rhythm section, The Smoke Wagon Blues Band has been performing in clubs and on festival stages for two decades…”

smoke-wagonAnother outstanding outing from this tight Canadian band. Fifty minutes and thirteen original but classic-sounding songs that are well arranged with excellent sound production throughout. The band is in tip-top form, with songs that give full rein to their well-honed musical chops. Tasty guitar, saxophone, keyboard and harmonica work will delight you all the way through, underpinned by a rock solid rhythm section. And all topped off by Corey Lueck’s smokey and well-phrase vocals.

Check out the sultry I Tried, with its subtle nod to Jimmy Reed, featuring some heart wrenching keyboard, guitar and saxophone. Or the slow-burning, late night blues of Set Me Free. And then there’s the title track, Cigar Store, which begins with some rolling piano blues before the storytelling begins and then some old-timey, foot-tapping blues. But all the songs are strong, there’s good fun here and there, and some sizzling musicianship on display.

All in all, you’re in for a treat – go get it!

 

Mark Harrison: Turpentine

“Really  excellent … he takes very real things, normal things that happen in life, and he writes about them in a way that makes you think afresh about them.”
(Paul Jones, BBC Radio 2)

Mark HMark Harrison is a very modern blues troubadour. His music evokes the blues and old-time American roots music, without ever being in thrall to it, but his songs address very modern issues. He says he owes a debt to the early acoustic blues and folk/blues artists, people like Blind Willie McTell, Mississippi John Hurt, Charley Patton, and Skip James, and for sure you can hear that in his music. Mark Harrison clearly knows his blues history. And he’s a fine guitarist, with rhythmic finger-picking and expert slide driving his songs. He’s been described as “one of the UK’s foremost acoustic blues performers.

Harrison says that “real blues music is about lifting the spirit” and that it’s a misconception that it’s all expressions of misery. He’s dead right – though the blues often functioned as the expression of the harsh reality of life for African Americans, more often than not the blues singer used the song to work his way through the hard times to a better place.

turpentine_digipack_coverAnd this is very evident in Turpentine, Mark Harrison’s fourth album. Here is a wonderful album of modern blues, clearly acknowledging its heritage in old blues, but each song sounding fresh, both musically an lyrically. The album has thirteen original songs, all with catchy tunes, and driven by Harrison’s nifty picking and sweet slide guitar work. There is one instrumental, Dog Rib, which showcases the artist’s fine slide guitar chops, and the rest are highly engaging lyrically, with stories, philosophical and ethical musings, and historical reflections.

Dirty Business equates dirty lying and stealing in the alleyway with dirty deals in the boardroom. Fade Away bemoans the madness at large in the world but takes comfort that “there’ll come a day when it’ll all fade away” – it brings to mind the Hebrew wisdom writer who tells us there’s a time for everything under the sun (remember the Byrds Turn, Turn, Turn?). So Many Bad People also takes up this theme of the world going to pot, but Harrison advises us to dance our way around the bad ‘uns – it reminds me of the Greek Poet Menander, “bad company corrupts good character.”

We get great stories in the songs as well – in Hell of a Story and Josephina Johnson for example. The latter is a finely observed portrait of a woman who “wasn’t going to sit there mainlining misery,” a “woman who does what she has to do.” She may have an angel smile but she has no heart of gold and there’s “no one meaner.” Brilliant.

17_Mark-at-Charlie-Wright's-London(1)My personal favourite is the amusing Hardware Store, written specially for all those men who are useless at DIY and, not only that, feel utterly worthless when faced with the simplest home improvement task. Yes, I am that man! All those things they sell at the hardware store, sings Harrison – “I don’t know what they do and I don’t know what they’re for.” I get it Mark. Everybody else in the hardware store loves browsing around those drills, hammers, tools boxes and other little gizmos which I have no idea about – but not me! “There are things I’m good at for sure, but you can’t find them in that hardware store.” Thanks, Mark, I need to keep reminding myself of that.

This is one very fine album, full of strong songs, cool arrangements, and lovely guitar work, with a joyous vibe evident throughout. This is a fresh take on the blues which should be in every blues and roots music lovers collection.

Mike Sponza, with Ian Siegal: Ergo Sum 

Ergo SumNow here’s something you don’t come across much – an album of blues music based on the work of the Latin poets Horatius, Catullus, Martialis and Juvenalis. What has the Delta to do with Rome, to paraphrase the ancient Christian writer Tertullian. Well – apparently quite a lot.  If you trawl through the lyrics of the early blues, you’ll find love, sorrow, loss, greed, betrayal, and careful reflection on life. Which is what you get in these poets, all of whom lived around 2,000 years ago. The human situation doesn’t change much, does it?

Just in case you think this is some dry academic project that might be vaguely interesting if you’re so inclined, let me say that this is one outstanding blues album, one of the best I’ve heard this year. As soon as I had listened all the way through, I immediately went back to track one and listened again. My only complaint is that there are only the eight songs.

The music and the band are terrific, driven by Mike Sponza’s cool guitar work. But it’s the vocals from Ian Siegal and Dana Gillespie which really make this album a keeper. Ian Siegal sounds like he’s just emerged from the thick tar-like soil of the Mississippi Delta – actually he hails from Portsmouth in England. But he’s paid his dues as a singer, songwriter, guitarist, bandleader and recording artist over two decades, and has performed and recorded with blues and Americana luminaries such as Alvin Youngblood Hart, Luther and Cody Dickinson, and Jimbo Mathus. His performances on these songs, each of which reflects a poem from one of the ancient poets, are remarkable. “Modus in rebus,” he sings on the opening track, as if we were all familiar with the term. In Siegal’s hands, the Latin becomes immediately relevant, urgent – the golden mean, moderation, becomes what we all know we should aspire to.  “The man who’s happy with just one glass, Is the man who will survive.” Quite.

From the second this initial track starts with Sponza’s sweet guitar, followed by the rasp of Siegal’s voice, I guarantee you’ll be hooked. And the album doesn’t let you go. The musicianship and song arrangements are top notch throughout, as is the recording and sound quality. The album was recorded in the famous Abbey Road Studios in London.

Dana Gillespie, veteran British pop, jazz and blues artist takes the fourth song in the album, The Thin Line, a poem by Catullus, here a jazzy, bluesy, horns-soaked meditation on the “thin, thin line between love and hate.” With each song as enjoyable as the last, we reach another Catullus poem for the last track, Prisoner of Jealousy, a slow-burning, emotional blues which Siegal wrings every drop of emotion out of.

Ergo Sum was the phrase used by René Descartes in his “ego cogito ergo sum,” – I think therefore I am. Ego caesitas ergo sum, perhaps?

Matty Wall: Blues Skies (Hipsterdumpster Records)

Matt WallHailing from Perth, Australia, Matty Wall plays a mean blues guitar. The boy can sing too, with nice phrasing and sweet vocals throughout his new album, Blue Skies. There’s a nice overall composition to the album, with seven self-penned songs and three covers – Keb’ Mo’s Am I Wrong, Jimi Hendrix’s Voodoo Chile and Robert Johnson’s Hellhound on My Trail. Wall’s own songs are all strong, well arranged and driven by his shimmering guitar work.

The album gets off to a rockin’ start with Burnin’ Up Burnin’ Down, which immediately draws you in and gets your toes tapping or your fingers drumming on the steering wheel. The groove never lets up throughout the ten songs, which are unashamedly blues numbers but with a decided modern feel. His Hellhound on My Trail, for example, driven by a hypnotic strumming guitar takes on a very sinister feel, quite different from Johnson’s original, yet very true to the spirit of the song. Voodoo Chile is also quite an original approach to the song; we get a fine Hendrix guitar tribute, but the song eventually morphs into a few minutes of psychedelic effects before returning to nice dirty guitar licks and Walls’ fine vocals.

I was a bit unconvinced about one of the album’s two instrumental tracks. Scorcher features some virtuosic guitar playing, and doubtless works well in a live setting – maybe not so much here. On the other hand, Wall gives us an absolute gem in Love Gone Away – a slow blues with simmering guitar playing that reaches right into your chest and grabs and twists your innards. The effect is visceral and moving.

“No looking back, Blue Skies are coming through again,” sings Wall on the title track. This is an album that does, however, look back to a rich heritage of blues, but more than that, it represents the blue skies of new talent and approaches to the blues coming through. A really fine album.

www.mattytwall.com

 

Brooks Williams – My Turn Now

“He’s a lovely player, a lovely singer, and a great writer. The real thing” (Martin Simpson)

Brooks Williams My Turn NowHailing from Statesboro, Georgia, now resident in the UK, Brooks Williams is an jaw-dropping guitarist and outstanding exponent of Americana and blues. His new album, My Turn Now showcases his guitar chops, sweet and beautifully phrased vocals, and sure-footed song writing skills.

Williams gives us eleven songs, seven self-penned, two traditional blues songs and two covers of Kris Kristofferson and Mose Allison. Hesitation Blues and Sitting on Top of the World are delightful interpretations, the latter featuring some top notch slide guitar. Kristofferson’s Nobody Wins, with backing vocals from Sally Barker, is transformed from a simple country song to something much more sophisticated which keenly observes the sadness of broken-down love.

Williams’ own songs are driven by his tasty guitar work on resonator, arch-top, cigar-box and electric guitars, and are characterized by strong arrangements and some lovely singing. The San Antonio Light, a Texas Sunday morning paper has said that Williams is a “fret monster who has to be seen to be believed.” That’s for sure, yet the guitar work always serves the needs of the song, supports rather than dominates, and leaves you wanting more.

All the songs are strong, but stand out tracks for me were Nine Days’ Wonder, Darkness and Joker’s Wild. There really is much to admire and enjoy in this fine collection of timeless songs, and if you’re a fan of Americana, and like even a hint of the blues, this is an album you’ll savour and keep coming back to.

“A slice of Americana at its finest.” fRoots

Check out Down at the Crossroads’ interview with Brooks Williams here.

 

Janiva Magness: Love Wins Again (Bluelan Records)

Love winsThis really is an terrific album. It’s positive, it’s upbeat, it’s a celebration of happiness from an artist that clearly has come to understand the power of love through the trials and difficulties of life. Janiva Magness has 11 albums behind her based on the traditional ideas of the blues – struggle, hardship, and loss. As a youngster, she lost both parents to suicide and spent a lot of time in foster homes, before having to give up a baby for adoption as a teenager. Not the most promising background for “persisting,” “prevailing” and becoming happy.

Yet that is precisely what Magness in her liner notes says she has done – reaching a place of contentment, happiness and able to “hold love.” “There is no doubt that all of us can get lost in our broken bits,” she says, “Still love rises in rebellion and wins against the odds.”

The hopeful, upbeat tenor of the album is struck right away with the opening track Love Wins Again, a catchy R&B number which draws you in straight off. It’s got some delightful backing vocals – which are a nice feature of this album throughout, not least on Say You Will. Most of the songs are originals by Magness or in collaboration with Dave Darling and one or two others, but there’s a great version of John Fogerty’s Long As I Can See the Light, driven by Magness’s bluesy, emotion-drenched vocals and some nifty guitar licks. The songs are strong and the arrangements throughout are terrific, varied enough for the album to defy exact categorization, but coherent enough to gel together as a collection.

The power of love and the hope of redemption in the midst of trials surge powerfully through the album. In Doorway, we get “And I’ll stand in your doorway, ‘Til all your fear is gone…

janiva“What’s that sound, it’s footsteps falling, The devil as he walks away;” while in Rain Down, Magness takes us from a place where there “ain’t no grace,” of “tears and gin” to “but now – the waters washed my sins”… “I escaped…singing hosanna”… “all I found was belief.”

According to Magness, that’s the power of love at work. It’s “the most formidable force of nature with the sharpest blade.” That’s why “love wins.” The trick, however, Magness says is keeping your heart open and trying to “resonate in the lives of other human beings.”

The world can be pretty grim at times. We need to “put a candle in the window,” we need to believe in the power of love. Janiva Magness’s best work to date points us down that road.

 

Tim Williams: So Low (LowdenProud Records)

So Low AlbumLet’s make no bones about it, right from the start – this is one outstanding album of acoustic blues. It’s got everything going for it – interesting, tasteful and beautifully phrased guitar work, fine singing, great choice of songs and cool arrangements. Add to that unadorned, honest recording, with no overdubs or trickery and you’ve got a terrific sounding album.

Calgary based bluesman Williams won the International Blues Challenge in Memphis in 2014.  Of this album he said that he made the decision to strip everything back to “a voice, a guitar and a song in a good sounding room…and maybe a foot tapping.”

Tim WilliamsThe ten songs consist of Williams’ interpretations of tracks by Mose Allison, Big Bill Broonzy, Blind Boy Fuller, Johnny Cash, and four of his own compositions. He gives Cash’s Big River a lovely bluesy twist, with some excellent slide on his Gretsch resonator and he does more than justice to the other old blues songs. The Mose Allison classic, If You Live, which kicks off the album, sets the stage beautifully for the album with some very cool and nifty guitar picking.

Williams proves to be an excellent song writer too, his songs reflecting the spirit of old-time country blues, but sounding fresh and brought alive by his inventive and expert guitar playing and his nicely phrased and soulful vocals.

As Williams says, this album is all about “a voice, a guitar, a story and the means to tell it.” Hugely enjoyable.

Brad Vickers & His Vestapolitans: That’s What They Say (ManHatTone 1090)

Brad Vickers + His Vestapolitans That's whaty they sayFifteen mainly acoustic songs gives Brad Vickers and his excellent Vestapolitans the chance to romp through a thoroughly enjoyable range of blues, Americana, roots, rock n’roll and ragtime, all with a great old-timey vibe. This is just the sort of album that makes you smile the whole way through – great songs, all but two written by some combination of Brad Vickers and Margey Peters, and good-time, toe-tapping grooves.

The album begins with a nice, acoustic version of a Tampa Red number, follows it up with a Leadbelly song that has a Sweet Home Chicago vibe and then we’re into Brad Vickers’ original territory with the catchy, fiddle-driven ragtime If You Leave Me Now. The more rock’n roll songs feature some nice tenor sax, while more rootsy numbers like Mountain Sparrow or Wishing Well gives us upright bass, banjo and mandolin. Fightin’, on the other hand has a distinct gospel feel.

You might wonder if the combination of styles on this disc really works. The answer is a resounding yes! The styles are different enough to make things interesting but the common touches of acoustic approach and Brad’s singing somehow hold things together. Make no mistake, this album is chock full of great songs, terrific arrangements and is thoroughly great fun. Go get it!

brad and band

 

Eliza Neals     Breaking and Entering

“Eliza Neals hits you right between the eyes…” Blues Blast Magazine.

eliza-neals-show-poster-breaking-and-entering-cover-1400sqShe sure does. Aided and abetted by her excellent band, which includes guitarists Kenny Olsen and Howard Glazer, Eliza Neals serves up a terrific mix of rockin’ blues from the opening slide-driven Detroit Drive to the final riff of the reprise of Breaking and Entering which closes the album. Eleven original songs, all originals, penned by Neals, along with a co-writer (Glazer, Olsen, Vera or Olsen-Foxy), and all reach out and pull you right in.

Great songs, fine arrangements, a superb group of musicians – and Neal’s fabulous vocals – there’s so much to admire here. And most of all enjoy. This is one to put on in the car music player and hit the open road, with a big smile on your face.

There’s plenty of variety to keep you interested – from the classic Southern rock of Southern Dreams (Olson’s guitar work on this is a treat) to the gritty Detroit Drive and Spinning to the psychedelic You. Not that the album lacks integrity – a bluesy vibe along with Neal’s potent and dynamically-charged voice ensures that.

The title track is a gut-wrenching blues which starts with Neals dueting with Glazer’s dirty sounding guitar. Neal’s vocals are at their most raw and emotional here – it’s quite superb.

Without doubt, one of the finest blues albums of the year.

Tas Cru: You Keep the Money

“His ability to cast a memorable hook is magical.” Living Blues.

Tas CruBased out of upstate New York, Tas Cru performs in a variety of formats ranging from solo-acoustic to a 7-piece backing band. In this his fifth album, Cru, along with an excellent, tight combo of nine other musicians, gives us twelve original songs, all genuine blues songs, but with a nice level of variety, from the slow balladry of Holding On to You to the funky feel of You Keep the Money to the rockin’ Half the Time.

It really is a very cool album indeed, marked by superb musicianship and Cru’s well-phrased and engaging vocals. The Hammond-style organ, harmonica and gospel-tinged backing vocals all combine deliciously to make the songs hugely enjoyable. And that’s before we consider the sweet guitar work from Cru. This comes to the fore particularly in La Belle Poutine, a wholly instrumental track, where Cru makes his luscious electric guitar fairly wring out your emotions. But the guitar playing throughout is always tasteful, never overbearing, right to the fore when you want it to be, supportive when it needs to be. Overall, the songs are well arranged and provide an album that hangs together beautifully.

The songs are well-constructed and will appeal, I should think, to a wide audience. We have some funky blues on You Keep the Money and Heart Trouble, some delightful slow blues, particularly on A Month of Sundays, and some “night-time” blues on A Little More Time. I found One Bad Habit to be great fun – the singer is getting older and now his only bad habit is his woman. He’s “Thinking about his longevity but his one bad habit might be killing’ me.” Take Me Back to Tulsa also stood out for me – after an acoustic start, it breaks into a driving, J J Cale-esque road song, with the “pedal to the metal.” And the album closer Thinking How to Tell Me Goodbye, works very well – a rolling train blues with a nice country feel to it.

This is a terrific album, hugely enjoyable – Tas Cru deserves all the success and acclaim this album should bring him.

 

Mandy Lemons and Low Society:You Can’t Keep A Good Woman Down

LemonsTwelve songs of foot stompin’ electric blues driven by Nikides’ excellent, rockin’ guitar work and Lemons’ blistering vocals. It’s terrific stuff – I defy you not to start moving once this tight combo launch into the title track, You Can’t Keep A Good Woman Down, or Up In Your Grave, or You Got A Right. As well as belting it out on these and other tracks, Lemons proves to be a pretty versatile singer, with the emotional This Heart of Mine, the playful Let Me Ride and the country toe-tapper No Money Down.

Low Society consists of vocalist Mandy Lemons, guitarist and producer Sturgis Nikides, (former guitarist for John Cale & The Velvet Underground), drummer Mike Munn and bass player Nick Dodson. The group is augmented by saxophone (Memphis legend, Herman Green), keyboards, piano and harmonic players and singer Lee Booth. The band has traveled extensively, playing hundreds of shows on festival, juke joint and club stages all across the USA and Europe.

The album was recorded at the historic Memphis landmark, American Recording Studio, and mastered by Stax legend, Larry Nix. It sounds just great.

This is a hugely enjoyable set of original songs from a band clearly on the top of its game. Blues based with Americana and country peeping through – and never a dull moment.

Jo Harman & Company: “Live at the Royal Hall”

31 October 2013 - Jo Harman + Qeaux Qeaux Joans (W2, Den Bosch)

 

jo harman live“Jo Harman is the finest female soul blues singer in the UK,” according to the UK’s Daily Mirror, and once you hear her, you’ll be hard pushed to disagree. She was recently announced as ‘Female Vocalist of the Year’ at the 2014 British Blues Awards.

Her impressive debut album, Dirt on My Tongue, was widely acclaimed and was one of Down at the Crossroads top blues albums for last year. She’s recently released a live album, recorded and produced by the BBC, from her performance on 30 October 2013 at Blues Fest at the Royal Albert Hall.

There are eight songs, including six written by Jo Harman (and others), all showcasing Jo’s excellent band (Dave Ital, guitar; Steve Watts, keyboards; Andy Tolman, bass; Martin Johnson, drums) and most of all Harman’s wonderful, emotional vocal performance. As you might expect in a live album, we get extended treatment of the four songs which appear on Dirt on My Tongue – so much more to enjoy.

And there is indeed much to enjoy – some very tasteful guitar work, versitile keyboards, terrific interaction between the two, and overall the band is a tight unit which seems to be enjoying itself. But then there is that voice – Jo Harman’s voice draws you in at every turn, soulful, bluesy, sensuous, gentle, or when it needs to be, rockin’. All the tracks are great, but for me you feel the full emotional power of Harman’s singing on the slower numbers, Amnesty and Sweet Man Moses.

This is real, honest music and what’s more, hugely enjoyable. Huey Morgan of the Fun Living Criminals said on BBC Radio 2, “Sometimes you hear a voice that leaves you speechless…I am.” Go get yourself a copy of one of her albums – you will be too.

 

Mississippi Heat: Warning Shot

warning shotOriginally formed in 1991, Mississippi Heat has released ten previous albums, all steeped in Chicago ‘50s blues. The band currently has five members and has toured extensively throughout North America and Europe. Warning Shot gives us a generous 16 songs (although personally, I prefer 3 or 4 songs fewer in an album), of which 14 are original compositions.

This is a fabulous set of musicians, clearly on top of their game. It is out and out, no-holds-barred blues with an obvious connection to a traditional Chicago blues sound. The album has a big band sound throughout, with brass, keyboards and harmonica as well as guitars and percussion. The vocals are nothing short of terrific, with great use of backup singers and harmonies all the way through.

There is a combination of a wide range of styles, from boogie-woogie to Chicago blues to R&B to funk – which is the album’s strength and weakness, for me. I might have preferred a little more focus as opposed to variety. But no matter, it’s all exceptionally well done, the band well orchestrated and tight, and Pierre Lacocque’s tasty and brilliant harmonica shining through all the way.

Some of the highlights for me were the Latin feel to Come to Mama; the slinky late night blues of I Don’t Know and What Cha Say?; the bang up to date Recession Blues (“keepin’ banks from knockin’ on our doors, Recession is hard); and the instrumental version of Hank Williams’ Your Cheatin’ Heart, which is great fun, a contest between harmonica and saxophone to see who can blues up the song the best.

Probably my favourite on the album, however, is Too Sad to Wipe My Tears, which recalls a kind of Robert Johnson style blues and has some lovely harmonica interplay with Inetta Visor’s velvety vocals.

Overall, highly recommended.

 

Kaz Hawkins  Get Ready

Kaz Hawkins PROMO PHOTO (Photo Credit Trish Semple)Kaz Hawkins’ new album, Get Ready, is inspirational, honest, warm, full of energy and infectious passion. Blues and gospel with a dollop of soul and R&B served up by an excellent band and a truly remarkable singer. Kaz says she listens to Etta James, Sarah Vaughan, Big Mama Thornton and Janis Joplin, and you can hear echoes of all these great female vocalists, but of course, Kaz Hawkins’ voice is her own – powerful, emotional, rasping, passionate, bluesy. And her music comes from a deep well of personal experience, trial and hope for the future.

Check out our interview with Kaz Hawkins here.

Kaz Hawkins Get Ready album cover artworkThe first song, Hallelujah Happy People is upbeat, toe-tapping and infectious and sets the tone for the album. I Saw a Man is driven by incessant drum beat which starts out alone and then is joined by piano and guitar chords. It’s the touching story of a “man without  a home,”  who used to be “paid to play,” has “seen it all before”, but is now reduced to busking and ignored by those that pass by.

Believe with Me is a kind of secular spiritual – Kaz looks back to “darker days, lonely days” where she discovered that there’s “only one way to be yourself – hold your ground.” She learned to plant “a seed way deep in my soul – it’s called believe.” There’s no room for wallowing in self-pity here – “pull yourself together,” she sings, you’ve got to take responsibility for yourself and “just believe,” along with her.

In Shake the flavour becomes more bluesy, more rockin’and the song gives an opportunity for Kaz’s powerful blues voice, raspy and raw in all the right places. The title track, Get Ready, follows and takes the pace down a notch. Hawkin’s voice here is full of emotion, soulful. Once more there’s the message of personal responsibility “There’s no coming back, think about your choices – stand up straight.” And if you can do that – “Get ready for peace and love.”

Can’t Afford Me gives voice to a nice piece of defiant self-esteem: “You’re a waste of space, you can’t afford me…You say you love me, start paying your dues.” As does Walking on My Own which asserts “I was a fool to love you… I’m walkin’ on my own, without you.”

Drink with the Devil recalls old blues songs, without ever sounding traditional and is a sobering take on the futility of drinking “Till you lose control, till you’re out of control, till you can’t see no more.”

This is a terrific set of songs, well arranged, full of honesty and urgency and with a hugely upbeat vibe. The album is a celebration of life and possibility. The editor of Classic Rock Blues Magazine said he was “blown away” by this album and I reckon you will be too.

Kaz Hawkins is touring the UK throughout September 2014.

 

J P Soars: Full Moon Night in Memphis

jp soarsJ P Soars’ third studio release, Full Moon Night in Memphis is one of the most enjoyable albums I’ve listened to this year. Every track is simply a joy, with divergent blues styles which show off Soars’ fabulous guitar chops.  Backed by an excellent set of musicians and vocalists, Soars plays a variety of guitars and sings throughout. His voice is a little reminiscent of Ian Siegal, just on the right side of gritty, always interesting. He is an intelligent, skilled blues guitarist, but yet is always entertaining, engaging and enjoyable, as opposed to just technical.

Soars has won the Albert King Award for Most Promising Guitarist and on this release you can see why, as he effortlessly and tastefully treats us to his skill on electric, acoustic, resonator, Cigar Box and Lap Steel guitars.

The songs are all terrific, with all but one of 14 songs by Soars. In Makes No Sense, which just oozes cool, Soars’ jazz sensibilities come to the fore with some very cool guitar work indeed. Mean Old World is a T-Bone Walker song in which Soars pays homage to the great man with some nice Walker-eque guitar work. Savin’ All My Lovin’ is in a classic Chicago blues style and Reefer Man takes us back in time 50 or 60 years, with sax and trumpet and backing chorus – just great toe-tapping fun.

Viper features some delicious clarinet by Scott Ankrom. It’s a minor key, old- fashioned, smokey blues club song with hints of the gypsy jazz that is in Soars’ repertoire – superb. The Road has Got Me Down is an old-fashioned country number, a duet with Teresa James, with Soars on lap steel and some lovely harmonica from Brandon Santini. We even get some Latin flavour thrown in for good measure on the instrumental Lil’ Mamacita, complete with fast and furious Spanish guitar work.

I especially like the hard driving Somethin’ Ain’t Right, where Soars lets rip with some blisterin’ blues rock guitar– the ills of the world, homelessness, poverty, American domestic policy all are in his sights here. “There’s got to be a better way, we can’t keep lookin’ the other way,” he sings. We need to “give a bit more and take less.” Right on the money, JP.

This is an album from the top drawer – and it’s one I will be listening to again and again. Do yourself a favour – go get a copy NOW!

David Michael Miller:  Poisons Sipped

poison sippedWith his music rooted in roots gospel, blues and soul, Buffalo-based singer/songwriter David Michael Miller, has given us a very fine album of 12 soul-tinged, blues-rock songs. With help along the way from the renown Campbell Brothers with their sweet pedal and lap steel, and some wonderful backing singing from Serena Young, Jasmine Neeley and Ashley Brown, this set of original songs from Miller is both highly enjoyable and thoroughly engaging. You’ll be coming back again and again to listen.

Miller’s vocals shine throughout, with the flexibility to drive hard through the rockier numbers like Hand Me Downs and Moving On, to mellow out in slower numbers like Memphis Belle (the stand-out track for me) and Carolina Bound and to dish out plenty of blues-cool in Hope Finds A Way. Soul and gospel influences consistently slip through, helped along the way by horns and pedal steel respectively.

There’s not a weak song on the album. Rather, there’s much to admire, savour and send you back to listen again.

Little Mike and the Tornadoes: All The Right Moves

littlemikeandthetornadoeAll The Right Moves reunites Little Mike Markowitz, guitarist Tony O. Melio, bassist Brad Vickers and drummer Rob Piazza after a brief musical hiatus. The band has been playing together since forming in the late seventies. They were the band of choice when visiting blues luminaries came to New York City to perform and have toured with the likes of Hubert Sumlin, James Cotton, Pinetop Perkins, and Jimmy Rogers.

All The Right Moves is a highly enjoyable blues album with a classic feel that recalls the Chicago blues of the 1950s. Mike Markowitz sings throughout, with deft phrasing, and plays the harmonica masterfully, always tastefully and never becoming overbearing. The title track showcases his harmonica chops admirably, without ever overshadowing the other instrumentals. The guitar work throughout is very cool, very retro, never boring. The songs, all original, are a fine collection of blues songs that you feel you already know, but look forward to hearing again. There is some fine blues piano from Jim McKaba as well, with interesting interplays between guitar and piano on a number of tracks, including Since My Mother’s Been Gone. The latter has a lovely 1960s feel to it, best heard in a dark room, late at night.

From the opening Hard Hard way – immediately appealing with its hoochie coochie man feel – through the 13 songs to the final Close to My Baby, a throbbing, vintage 12-bar number, Little Mike and the Tornadoes have given us a terrific, stripped down, classic Chicago blues album that should be on every blues fans wanted list this year.

 

Bad Brad and the Fat Cats: Take a Walk With Me: Live in the Studio

bad bradBad Brad and the Fat Cats reach out and grab you by the lapels from the opening guitar riff of Take a Walk With Me and pull you right inside their rockin’ bad ass blues whether you like it or not, until finally they spit you out at the end of the Les Paul-laced Uma, thirteen tracks later. Actually, you will like it – thirteen original tracks of classic blues rock that always manage to stay fresh, with style variety throughout. The guys tip their hats to, among others, Rory Gallagher, Elmore James, John Lee Hooker and Jimmy Reed, and infuse the collection of songs with huge energy and passion – which, judging from the YouTube clips, seems to be characteristic of their live sets.

The band consists of Brad Stivers (guitar and vocals), Alec Stivers (drums) and Nic Clark (blues harp), all young guys with a wealth of musical talent and the dedication and energy to make something of it. Bad Brad is in terrific voice throughout, raw and edgy when required, but always making something cool in his phrasing. The man plays a mean guitar, with plenty of opportunity throughout the album to impress us – whether it’s with propulsive riffs on the opening track, or the cool as cucumber, late night blues on Lucky Man or the urgent, driving tones on Train Down South. Nic Clark is an outstanding young harmonica player and he drives the music along in a number of the tracks, without ever becoming too dominant. Alec Stivers, ably assisted by Lionel Young, Dwight Carrier, Bill Shannon, Alissa Chesis, and Greg MacKenzie expertly provide an overall sound that is tight and appropriate for each song. The production and sound quality of the album were excellent throughout.

This is quite simply a terrific blues album. One small hiccough for me was the lyrics on Leghound and Lucky Man, which I know are meant to be amusing, but which I found just a little too macho for 2014. That aside, the album rocks and hopefully we’ll see a whole lot more of Bad Brad and the Fat Cats over the coming years.

 

John Lyons   “Sing Me Another Song”

img_John_Lyons_11.02.201361Let’s make a promise…
To live our lives most joyfully
Don’t be a part of inequality
Open your heart…

Just a sample of some of the smart lyrics from Switzerland-based singer-songwriter John Lyons. The first song on his new album, Sing Me Another Song gets right into the groove, a bit soulfully, a bit funky and certainly with a cool blues vibe. The album could not be said to be a blues album – it has more a melodic soft rock feel to it – but it has its solid blues moments, on the title track, on Dear James, on The Blues Moved In and on Bluestar Highway. The rest of the songs are a kind of soulful Americana and, having listened to the album on a few occasions, I can say that it’s definitely a grower – the more you listen to it, the more you appreciate the lyrics and arrangements, and the more enjoyable it becomes. Shot through with cool melodies and borne along by Lyons’ laid-back, but well measured vocals. Not having heard him before, I was reminded of Jackie Greene – his voice has a similar tonal quality and the songs are well-crafted and engaging.

Lyons’ band consists of a international set of talented musicians, including Gabriel Spahni on bass and backing vocals, Simon Britschgi on drums and Matthew Savnik on piano and organ. Lyons has suggested his music is hard to put a label on and might best be characterized as “Soulblues.” That’s probably about right, although there is much more going on in the album that just soul and blues. Aside from the music there is some great storytelling in songs like Blink of an Eye, Dear James and Sing Me Another Song. And Lyons gives us a few more serious things to think about too – “What’s wrong with people today they’re acting so crazy, running for the money,” or “Learn to let it go, Learn to let love show.” And, then, possibly my favourite, from The Blues Moved In – “She stole my guitar, And she ran away with my friend.” Now that really is the blues!

Johnlyons

Laura Cheadle Family Band. “Bruised and Soothed”

bruisedThe Laura Cheadle Family Blues Band’s new album, Bruised & Soothed, is a smooth blend of soul, funk and blues, with a hint of pop and R&B thrown in for good measure. This is a terrific band, for sure, featuring James “Papa” Cheadle on keyboards, son, “Jimmy Lee” Cheadle on lead guitar, Ben Smith on drums and daughter and singer-songwriter, Laura Cheadle on vocals and rhythm guitar.

The thirteen original songs on the album give us a chance to appreciate the excellent arrangements and production, but also the tight musicianship of the band. There’s some excellent keyboard work throughout and judicious use of brass to inject a nice level of funk when needed. And then there’s Laura’s voice – blues-drenched on the opener Where the Blues Hang Out and on Tried to Teach You to Love, delightfully jazzy on What’s It All About, sensuous on The Best That It Could Feel, gorgeously caressing on You Are the Sweetest Soul, and dripping with soul on As Long As You Love Me. She is capable of tremendous variety and clearly a very accomplished musician and singer. The album never gets stuck in one particular style but nor, however, does it lack cohesion – there’s a cool, soulful funkiness throughout.

Laura Cheadle and her band are enormously talented and have produced a quality album which you might well enjoy on your car CD player, but might best be savoured after dark, with the lights turned low and the volume up.

 

Smoke Wagon Blues Band “Live in Hamilton”

CoreyLueck“Live in Hamilton” captures a performance of Canada’s The Smoke Wagon Blues Band from May 2013. With four independently released albums behind them and 17 years’ experience of playing together, this live album exhibits a band thoroughly comfortable in its own musical shoes, clearly enjoying itself and delighting an enthusiastic home crowd.

The album was mastered by Nick Blagona, who has worked on an impressive catalogue of artists’ albums including Chicago, The Police, Deep Purple and Ian Gillan, and delivers a terrific set of 11 tracks. The sound quality is excellent throughout, with all the instruments and vocals distinct yet nicely balanced. The result is to show off the excellent musicianship of the band, as they make their way through a set of originals and covers of songs by Muddy Waters, Bill Withers and Dave Mason.

The album commences with an extended bluesy-jazzy instrumental introduction to Ain’t No Sunshine When She’s Gone, with the saxophone and piano to the fore, and just when you’re convinced it’s going to be a fully instrumental version, the vocals kick in, Corey Lueck delivering the goods.

smoke wagonThis is a thorough-going blues album, but manages to vary the diet with soul on Josephine, funk on Wrong Side Girl and Fine Furred Mama, boogie on Smoke Wagon Blues, and even a bit of country on Barton Street Blues. But I especially loved the traditional blues on Lonesome Whistle Blues, which features heart-rending saxophone and guitar soloing, some delicious piano blues and rasping, emotive vocals.

The band consists of Corey Lueck (vocals and harp), Jason Colavecchia (bass), Tibor Lukacs (drums), Mike Stubbs (guitar), Nick Succi (piano and organ), and Gordon Aeichele (saxophone). Lueck recently lamented the artificial nature of much of the manufactured popular music that’s promoted these days – well, there’s nothing artificial about “Live in Hamilton” – it’s a refreshing and honest performance from musicians who have paid their dues with an audience which appreciates integrity and…good, hugely enjoyable music.

Patti Parks       Cheat’n’ Man

PattiParksPatti Parks and her seven piece band, augmented by sixteen other musicians and vocalists delivers a highly enjoyable set of nine original songs, all but one in a big band / jump blues style. From the moment the band strikes up in Baby Don’t You Know, the music is infectious and joyful, and one can only imagine that a live performance from this band would get your smile broadening and your feet dancing pretty quick.

The only song that isn’t a blues number is Mama, which is more of a slow musical show number and for me it didn’t work quite as well as the other well written and orchestrated songs. But then, I’m not a great fan of musical theatre. Instrumental solos on the album are mostly taken by saxophone, and there is some fine playing. I enjoyed the bluesy piano as well. There’s only one song on the album that features solo guitar, It Ain’t Right, and the overdriven effect matches perfectly the sassy feel of the song.

patti parks band photoIn the midst of all the exciting big band stuff going on, Patti Parks’s vocals take center stage, belting it out at times, caressing the lyrics at others, sometimes sweet, sometimes playful, other times brash. It’s all good-natured fun. Patti Parks says her aim is to “engage my audience and get them to forget their troubles and leave them at the door.” By the sounds of this album, I’d imagine that’s exactly what this band does.

 

KAT & Co. I Kat the Blues

i kat the bluesMake no mistake – this is one very fine blues album. It’s got everything you could want – a great set of strong songs, outstanding arrangements and musical variety, cool guitar licks, guest appearances from two artists deeply connected to blues history, and…the emotive and sultry vocals of Kat Pearson.

The collection of songs consist of 8 originals and 2 covers, Johnny WintersTired of Tryin’ and Mark Knopfler’s Your Own Sweet Way. In Tired of Tryin’ Francesco Accurso’s guitar takes the place of the harmonica on both the recurring riff and the solo, to the benefit of the song. With Your Own Sweet Way, there’s a slightly more forceful treatment than in the Notting Hillbillies’ original and the sweet guitar work here is Knofler-esque without ever seeking to mimic.

The collaboration between Kat Pearson and  Mud Morganfield on the classic-sounding Payin’ My Dues is a delight, each taking it in turn to sing in a kind of conversation and then chipping in with an “oh honey,” or an “oh baby.” The song concerns the struggle to pay the bills in hard economic times. One of the characteristics of this album is the smart, up-to-date lyrics combined with a classic, yet vibrant blues sound.

It’s great hearing someone like Lil’Jimmy Reed on The Scene – and it’s quite amusing as well, given that Jimmy’s now in his 70s, to hear him singing about the “action” on a Saturday night. Chad Strentz also guests on this song.

The songs all feature the voice of Kat Pearson, formerly of LA, now resident in London. Kat’s vocals easily take care of business on each of the varied songs – powerful, sassy, sultry, whatever’s required, but always reaching out and dragging you into the songs, making them come alive. She’s terrific.

????????As is the band – guitarist Francesco Accurso, Federico Parodi on keyboards, bass player Vincenzo Ettore Virgillito and Nicholas Owsianka on drums. These guys all gel well together and I loved the guitar work throughout, as well as the tasty organ playing and barrel-house piano.

Kat & Co. – highly recommended. If we’d come across this album sooner, it would definitely have featured in our Best Albums of 2013 list. Go get yourself a copy.

4 comments on “Album Reviews

  1. Pingback: Eliza Neals » Down at the Crossroads “Breaking and Entering” Album Review

  2. Pingback: Eliza Neals » “Breaking and Entering” Reviews! January to March 2015

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