No shortage of terrific blues albums this year thus far. We’ve chosen 15 of the best, including albums of traditional blues, blues rock, and bluesy Americana. We’ve maybe been a bit light on acoustic blues albums so far, but let’s see what the rest of the year brings. In the meantime, go check out each of these outstanding albums
Elles Bailey, Shining in the Half Light
UK Blues Award winner’s Bailey’s third studio album of soulful and passionate blues. She’s a remarkable talent, and here delivers ten songs that highlight just how good her powerful, but beautifully controlled voice is. If you’re not familiar with Ms. Bailey, put that right, right now with this terrific album.
Dana Fuchs, Borrowed Time
Dana Fuchs has a wonderful, nuanced, blues-tinged voice with just the right amount of huskiness. This album of rock songs has heaps of blues feeling and soul, along with some delicious guitar work. [Check out our interview with Ms. Fuchs here]
Eric Gales, Crown
This is a remarkable piece of work from the talented Eric Gales, stretching the boundaries of blues rock and setting a new standard for the genre. The musicianship and arrangements serve the strength of the song-writing perfectly, Gales’s singing is versatile and powerful and, of course, as you’d expect, his guitar work is all you’d want from one of the world’s great electric guitar players. [Full review here]
Katie Henry, On My Way
Stylish album of bluesy Americana from the very talented New Jersey native Katie Henry. There’s nice variety in the songs, from the blues of the opening song to more jazzy or country-tinged numbers. Ms. Henry is a terrific and versatile vocalist and a talented pianist and guitarist to boot.
Son House, Forever On My Mind
Dan Auerbach’s Easy Eye Sound label is restoring and releasing Dick Waterman’s archived tape collection of Delta blues artists, and this collection of Son House songs, Forever on My Mind is the first instalment. The sound quality on the album is great and it contains eight classic House songs, including Preachin’ Blues, Death Letter, Pony Blues and Levee Camp Moan. [Full review here]
Taj Mahal & Ry Cooder, Get On Board
Mahal and Cooder’s set of Terry and McGhee songs tries to recreate something of the rawness of the blues recordings of yesteryear, and it has the feeling of two old friends thoroughly enjoying themselves. Taj Mahal said, “There are basic things in our culture that connect us, that allow us to be able to reach back and connect to a history of people, the things that nourish us as a people, and music, this music is one of those things.” In Get on Board, Mahal and Cooder reach back and connect to a part of blues history, helping to make sure it is not forgotten. [Full review here]
Dom Martin, A Savage Life
Dom Martin’s new album, A Savage Life, sees him fulfil the potential that his acclaimed 2019 album, Spain to Italy, pointed to. Martin is a multiple UK and European Blues Award winner who seems equally at home playing the acoustic blues of Blind Blake and the blues-rock of Rory Gallagher. Add to that his expressive vocals, and you have in Dom Martin the real deal. His guitar work and vocals throughout are stellar and the arrangements and musicianship from the rest of the band, are excellent. [Full review here]
Keb’ Mo’, Good to be Home
Another fine and hugely enjoyable album from Keb’ Mo’. It’s not exactly the blues, but – hey, it’s Keb’ Mo’! It’s feel-good stuff all the way, Sunny and Warm, the third song, describing things perfectly. Mr Mo’ is joined for good measure by Darius Rucker, the Old Crow Medicine Show and Kristin Chenoweth. Good Strong Woman continues Keb’ Mo’s recent affirmation of women, as opposed to the sexist lyrics often heard in the blues.
John Mayall, The Sun is Shining Down
You expect a John Mayall album to be good and this one doesn’t disappoint. 89-year-old Mayall is joined by a number of guests, including Marcus King, Buddy Miller, Scarlett Rivera in eight covers and two originals. It’s top-notch, modern blues rock, and you’ve got to hand it to John Mayall – for 60 years he’s been leading the charge with the blues and The Sun is Shining Down shows no sign of waning performance.
North Mississippi Allstars, Set Sail
An album from these Mississippi hill country guys is always welcome and Set Sail doesn’t disappoint. It’s a bit different from previous albums, not so much blues rock as funky R&B with a hint of gospel. Luther Dickinson’s unmistakable, laid back vocals are augmented in a few songs by Stax legend William Bell and the Allman Brothers’ Lamar Williams. It’s fine, upbeat stuff pointing us to brighter days.
Charlie Musselwhite, Mississippi Son
Fourteen mostly original songs from the 78-year-old veteran bluesman, Musselwhite, who plays guitar and harmonica and handles the vocals throughout. Songs like In Your Darkest Hour and Rank Strangers are perfect front-porch blues, with Musselwhite’s searching harp and raw vocals. Mississippi Son puts you right back in the heat and sweat of Musselwhite’s home state and bears testimony to the man’s lifetime in the blues. (And what about that album cover? Very cool).
Bonnie Raitt, Just Like That
Her first album in six years, it’s all you’d want from a Bonnie Raitt album. Cool songs, Raitt’s characteristic slide guitar and her ever soulful vocals. The ten songs are strong, narrative-based, and well-arranged, and Raitt, now in her eighth decade delivers a classy performance throughout. The title track is a wonderful treat, pretty much just Raitt picking her acoustic guitar and singing plaintively.
Mavis Staples & Levon Helm, Carry Me Home
Carry Me Home is something of a masterpiece, it would not be too bold to suggest, a celebration of friendship, mutual admiration and faith. You can’t help but be moved by both the poignancy of the selection of songs and the pair’s performances, now knowing that Helm was to pass shortly after and that Staples is now in her 83rd year. It’s simply a great set of songs, a wonderful collection of blues, gospel and Americana. [Full review here]
Cristina Vane, Make Myself Again
Cristine Vane is a quite wonderful talent – a skilful guitar picker and slide player, a fine songwriter and a beautiful singer. It’s the sign of a talented songwriter and musician to give a traditional feel to a song, and yet have it feel bang up to date. Vane says she’s “essentially a rock kid who is obsessed with old music.” And that’s a winning combination. This is a top class album of 13 well-crafted songs, blessed by Vane’s silky vocals and guitar chops.
Edgar Winter, Brother Johnny
Several years in the making, Brother Johnny is a labour of love, a warm tribute by Edgar Winter to his brother, who passed away aged 70 in 2014. Brother Johnny features a star-studded cast of musicians, including Keb’ Mo’, Ringo Starr, Joe Bonamassa, Robben Ford, Warren Hayes, Billy Gibson, and Kenny Wayne Shepherd. With 17 tracks and clocking in at 76 minutes, it’s a huge treat of an album and a fine tribute to one of the giants of blues rock. [Full review here]
Tim Duffy is a breath of inspiration, and what he and the Music Maker Relief Foundation are doing and have been doing for the past 30 years deserves widespread attention.
Music Maker Relief Foundation, based in Hillsborough, North Carolina, was founded in 1994 by Tim and Denise Duffy to “help the true pioneers and forgotten heroes of Southern music gain recognition and meet their day-to-day needs.” In addition, it wants to preserve these traditions and help them flourish by presenting them to the world.
Over the years, Music Maker has helped over 500 artists who were struggling, and in many cases, impoverished, get paying gigs and back onto their feet. It has produced over 200 albums of music from these artists, and recorded thousands of tracks. It is keeping an entire tradition alive.
“It’s like a glorious awakening of discovery of all this music you’ve never heard of,” Tim Duffy told me. “These guys stand in front of me for 45 minutes and change the world. You know, they have a body of work and want someone to document it, and they do this because they want the next generation to know about it. They know it’s important work but they don’t have the means to buy a tape recorder or get into a studio. And when I tell them about the Foundation and they’re open for it, it’s a tornado. It’s just locked down. There it is, lightning in a bottle!”
Our chat began by me asking Tim what Music Maker is all about. He told me that it’s a nonprofit organization, founded in 1994, that “tends to the roots of American music.” He described the deep poverty in which he has found many artists living in – “from outside the US, it’s hard to understand what extreme poverty is like in the United States.” Just getting by is hard if you’re trying to live on the $7,000 to $12,000 a year that Music Maker regularly finds artists subsisting on. So, says Tim, Music Maker provides small amounts to help get bills paid and get prescription medicine, and then, “when we get them working and get them gigs, that can easily double their annual income.”
Music Maker has been doing this work for many years now, and I wondered if the levels of poverty amongst aging artists had improved any.
“You know, I hate to say it, I think it’s worse. I think poverty gets worse in America. It’s always bad, but prices of food go higher, access to medical care was always tough, and I think poverty in housing is about impossible.” Some people, Duffy told me, are still living in cheap trailers that were built in the 1950s for elderly people, trailers that had a shelf life of five years. So, he said, “Over the years I’ve been doing it, I think the times are harder. Food insecurity is hard, but there are even food deserts. There’s not even access to healthy food.
“And rent – these artists used to be able to have rent for $100-$300 a month. After Katrina, little Freddy King was renting for $300, but now rent for not even a nice place in New Orleans is $1,500 or so. But their income hasn’t gone up.”
Add to that the decreasing number of places for these artists to play, whether it’s churches or the Chitlin circuit, and you have an increasingly tough situation. One that, Tim suggested, was felt by more than the artists he deals with – “we have a huge problem of starving children in America.” His view is that these problems are fixable – if there really was a will to do it. Sadly, “there doesn’t seem a public will to help our fellow man, the really impoverished people.”
Older models of charity have often ended up with wealthier people sweeping in as benefactors in a way that robs those they are trying to help of their dignity. How, I wondered, does Music Maker avoid this?
Tim was clear that the artists he has dealt with have not been asking for a handout, rather they need a hand up. “Number one thing they want is a gig, a place to perform. They can earn their own money. That is the greatest thing. And then it’s a slow process because we can only do very little by our sustenance program. We don’t have billions of dollars, we can’t hand out $20,000 a year to hundreds of artists. I wish I could, but I don’t have that kind of resource.
“So, there are other things that we do because people are disenfranchised. Like community building. We have a social worker who writes every month to the artists and introduces them to one another. And they meet and when they play together, they exchange phone numbers. It’s like joining a little congregation, like a guild, so that now a very remote Mississippi blues man is friends with a gospel artist in North Carolina; and they’re friends with a blues man in Detroit; and they all talk to each other, and they stay in touch. So, it’s community building. Everyone needs someone to talk to someone who understands them. Building those friendships is one of the interesting things that we do.”
So that’s Music Maker’s sustenance programme. Then, says Tim, “we have professional development where we help make CDs and get artist’s music released, get bios written and make them known – from being unseen artists, to known artists, a known quantity. And then we have an education program where we educate the world through exhibits. We have photo exhibits that go to a lot of cultural institutions. Over the last six years, we’ve done over 50 of them. So that is the essence. We’re trying to let the world know.”
Tim pointed to the uniquely African-American experience at the root of the blues. This music, he told me “was born in the South. It was born from very disenfranchised people and those conditions still exist today. And if you go into these small communities, there are literally the great, great, great, great grandsons and granddaughters of the artists that created this music that have held dear to the older traditions. And they are very special people because this music really isn’t popular within their communities, but they keep it alive. And so, we try to amplify their voices and after they pass, keep their voices amplified. The greatest gift that America has given to the arts is our American musical traditions, largely rooted in the South. So our focus is going back within that culture and promoting what Alan Lomax would call cultural equity.”
Tim Duffy clearly has a deep respect for the music, its tradition and the artists who keep that tradition alive. He was never into pop or rock music, and from his days as a folklore student at the University of North Carolina, he has been seeking to record and promote the music he has found in the American South, especially the Carolinas. He spoke warmly and admiringly of artists he had worked with, like Cootie Stark, John Lee Zeigler, Wille Mae Butler, Drink Small, Macavine Hayes, and Adolphus Bell.
“You know, those are a bunch of names most people have probably never heard of, but I would say is they’re just as important American artists as anybody you know. I’m a folklorist, I like going to the most real rooted, unknown thing – a lot of people like going to big concert halls and big festivals, but I’d rather be in someone’s living room. That’s what gets me excited.”
These living room recordings – “field recordings” – are what Tim Duffy has done since the early days of Music Maker. What has been important for him is trying to replicate exactly what he hears in front of him, without filtering it. He mentioned Mark Levinson, renown audio system designer, who “fell in love with my work and taught me about biaural recordings, gave me these extremely expensive, beautiful, rare microphones, and a way of recording where it’s like replicating what you hear in front of you.”
Duffy recalled the example of Alan Lomax, noted ethnomusicologist and recorder of folk music, who could “change the world with one mic and 500 pounds of recording gear.” The music Lomax recorded in places like Angola Prison in Louisiana or Haiti “is still as fresh and vibrant today.”
What, I wondered have been the milestones along the way, as Tim looks back over the last nearly thirty years?
“Well, there were a couple. Meeting Mark Levinson was great and then meeting Taj Mahal in 1995 and him reaching his hand to help me and the elder artists has been huge. And then we went on tour with Taj, did a 42-city tour in 1998 and ’99, and my wife had the great idea to collect email addresses and we collected thousands of addresses.
“And then in 2000, I looked at Fat Possum records and I thought they were just so incredible, but I knew we couldn’t do what they were doing. I couldn’t sell records. So my wife and I decided we were going to really focus on being a nonprofit, instead of trying to be an independent record label. And that was a keystone moment. And here we are, 20 years later, still doing it.
“And I think the next key thing was meeting Freeman Vines. And when I got out of my car the first day I met him and saw his yard, I knew. When I had met Guitar Gabriel and a few others, I knew I was in the presence of a genius. But I didn’t have all the skills that I have now. And so when I met someone as smart as Freeman, that first day I could envisage the book and an exhibition. I talked to him about it and we had a lot of dialogue and then we spent five years putting it together.
“And I’m glad we did that. I don’t know what the next big idea I’ll come up with, put that kind of resources to. But that decision, to work with Freeman, was not a real popular decision in my organization or my board. And when we released the book [Hanging Tree Guitars], a lot of people were thinking, what the heck are we doing, going into a pandemic, releasing a book. But, we sold out of the first run of the book in five weeks. And so that little book has kept Music Maker going for the next year.”
Along the way, Music Maker Relief Foundation has caught the attention of some big names in the music industry, who have been prepared to lend a hand. Mark Levinson introduced Tim to Eric Clapton in 1995 which helped him to get a record deal with GRP records [a jazz record label founded by Dave Grusin and Larry Rosen in 1978].
“And then through Taj Mahal, I met his friend and producer, John Porter, who was recording B.B. King’s Deuces Wild record. Then, in LA, Taj introduced me to Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. B.B. introduced me to Joe Cocker and took me over to England and which resulted in me spending time with Eric Clapton again, and Jeff Beck and Van Morrison and all these people.
“B.B. King wrote the introduction to my first book, Portraits and Songs from the Roots of America. He thought the idea of Music Maker was fabulous, and I spent a lot of time traveling with him, and he helped me form the ideas of the foundation. So, Taj Mahal opened that door for me and Taj lends his helping hand to a lot of people.” In the foreword to this first book of Duffy’s photographs, B.B. King wrote, “By documenting the faces and the deep, soulful eyes of the people who make the music I love, these photographs preserve a dimension of blues culture that could easily be lost forever.”
Beyond his work with Music Maker, Tim Duffy is also a master photographer who has documented the artists he has worked with over the years, and used unusual and very effective photographic techniques to do so. His latest book, Hanging Tree Guitars, a collaborative effort between himself, Freeman Vines, a luthier-artist and bluesman, and Zoe Van Buren, a folklorist, features stunning photographs of Vines’s work, documenting the guitars made by Vines out of wood from a tree that had been used for lynching. The photographs utilize collodion wet plate processing, an early form of photographic processing which gives them an aged look, and seems particularly suitable for the sombre subject matter.
“When I wanted to present Freeman to the world, I knew if I just took straight colour photographs of the images, it would’ve been nice, but it wouldn’t reflect my 25-year journey of looking at artists and how I see them. And I wanted people, when Freeman talked about parallel universes and the root of the lynched man and the wood, I wanted them to see something horrifying. I wanted to express the horror that I felt in Freeman felt through my art. And I worked for five years at that. And I think it did.”
Tim Duffy began his work with Guitar Gabriel, who had been inactive in the music industry for many years, had received no royalties for his music,and was impoverished. He required almost daily assistance from Duffy, who provided transportation to medical appointments, money, and food for Gabriel and his wife. When I asked Tim what was the motivation for that, he was much more interested in telling me how his encounter with Guitar Slim had changed his life, how he had learned that there was no place in the music industry for elderly African-American artists, and how amazing Guitar Slim and all the other artists he had subsequently met were.
His focus is clearly on recognizing the worth and value of the artists he works with, sensing that when he grants funding, he doesn’t have to be prescriptive, because they know what they need to do for themselves. “And so we set up what I thought was a whole new model of folklore, of dealing with traditional artists – supporting them, recording them, and professional development and education. And we really haven’t veered very much from that. You know, it’s kind of like a church in a sense, it’s a family organization. We feel like a family.
“And then you connect fans with the music, like-minded people that have extra income that can support the foundation. And I have donors that have been donating to me since 1994, that haven’t missed a year, and they do it because they say it’s made their life a much better. So, it works on both sides. It’s just like when you go to church and a good preacher is talking to a whole congregation, but you feel like he’s talking directly to you and you leave feeling uplifted. And I think that the experience we create both for our donors and for the artists is an uplifting situation.”
The whole Music Maker enterprise is an uplifting one. As was my conversation with Tim Duffy. If you’re reading this, you’re a music fan – so scoot over to https://musicmaker.org/ and learn more about the fabulous work the Foundation does. And while you’re there, do your bit and buy some CDs, a book of fabulous photographs or just donate.
Photo Credits: Drink Small by Jimmy Williams; Hands on guitar by Axel Kustner; Others by Tim Duffy
The blues is dead is a phrase you occasionally hear. It’s also the title of a song on Spectacular Class, an album of timeless acoustic blues, released a few months ago by 22-year-old Jontavious Willis, who hails from Greenville, Georgia. Importantly, though, Jontavious’s song title has a question mark and this hugely gifted artist uses the song to disabuse us of any notion that the blues have passed their sell by date. Such talk just makes him “scratch my head.” Jontavious knows that “the blues ain’t goin’ anywhere, the blues been around for a great long time,” As long as people have “situations and problems on their mind,” the blues ain’t going anyway. So, “stop with that foolish talk.”
Once you listen to this talented young man, who has delivered an album that sounds at once traditional but at the same time entirely fresh, with an outstanding set of songs driven by his top-notch guitar picking and his hugely entertaining vocals, you realize that the blues are nowhere near dead. In the hands of Jontavious Willis, the future of the blues is secure.
And that’s the opinion of the legendary Taj Mahal, who said, “That’s my Wonderboy, the Wunderkind. Jontavious is a great new voice of the 21st century in the acoustic blues.” Keb’ Mo’ too has recognized his talent, working with him in the recording of Spectacular Class and taking him on tour with him.
Like many other musicians, Willis grew up singing in church from an early age, encouraged by his grandfather. He started playing guitar when he was fourteen and five years later was playing on stage with Taj Mahal. He’s a multi-instrumentalist, an excellent song writer, a talented guitarist and a hugely entertaining performer.
And, he’s a nice guy. As I found out when I got the chance to chat to him one day recently during his busy US tour.
Gary Congratulations on the new album, Spectacular Class. It’s terrific, it was one of our best albums of 2019 so far, in the list that we did a couple of months ago. It’s had a great reception, been very well received. I guess you’ve been pleased about that?
Jontavious Oh most definitely. It’s been great and I’m proud of it. We did a good job and worked hard and now I’m very proud of it.
Gary Yeah. So tell us a little bit about the making of it. Both Keb’ Mo’ and Taj Mahal have been involved I gather.
Jontavious Yes. Keb’ was strongly involved. But you know, I think it took us two, maybe three days to make it. And it was real easy. Keb’ made it real nice. He was very easy to work with. My first album, I did it all by myself and it was a lot harder. Keb’ taught me a lot of things in the studio. We did it in three days and it was good. I wrote all the songs, Yeah, it was fantastic.
Gary What sort of things do you think you learned from Keb Mo’?
Jontavious I learned a lot of technical things, a lot about the board, more about how to get different sounds, and mixing and mastering. I learned more about the other side of things, not just the performance aspect, mixing sound and making the record.
Gary And Taj Mahal has made some very nice comments about you?
Jontavious Yeah that’s my buddy! Yeah, Taj, he e-mailed me almost every other week.
Gary That’s fantastic. Because he’s a legend really, isn’t he?
Jontavious Oh yeah, and he’s also a great person and a great mentor. Aside from being legendary, he’s just a great man in general.
Gary So how did you come in contact with him?
Jontavious I met Taj in August 2015. We had a mutual friend and he’d seen a video of mine that was posted on YouTube. He enjoyed it and he had a show in Atlanta and invited me to come there and play two songs for him. And the rest is history!
Gary So he liked it.
Jontavious Yeah, he liked it. He called me up on stage – that was the first time I played for a pretty large crowd. It looked like it was two thousand people out there. I’m not sure how many. There was a lot of people there.
Gary Did that make you feel a bit nervous?
Jontavious Well I was more nervous that Taj was sitting beside me than I was with all the people! He didn’t leave the stage. When I played, he stayed right there, his hand patting on his leg while I was playing, so that made me nervous.
Gary So no pressure!
Jontavious No, and I never encountered pressure ever again after that day!
Gary Fantastic. I gather you’ve played a few shows with Keb’ Mo’ in the last couple of months. How has that been?
Jontavious It’s been great. Yeah, I played a few. He gave me 45 minutes, you hone in on how many songs it takes to, you know, complete it. It sharpened me up pretty good and I get to always check out what Mr. Keb’ is doing. That’s always a pleasure. And just hanging out with him. I always enjoy just talking to people more so than anything, just talking to people and getting to spend quality time not just strictly music, but getting to know each other.
Gary That’s very cool. You have a great song on Spectacular Class called The Blues is Dead? It’s a proposition that you clearly don’t agree with! What sort of blues particularly appeals to you?
Jontavious I have an appetite for music in general but I love all different styles of blues. I don’t go out with a band, but I tell people I enjoy blues from the ‘20s to the late ‘50s. That’s about my span with blues. I enjoy Chicago blues from Tampa Red to Muddy Waters. But yeah, it’s all around. The only thing about playing solo is you don’t have to worry about missing anybody else if you want to change the tempo. If you want to do what you want to do, you can do it. You don’t have to worry about messing up your bandmates.
Gary And are you finding that out there there’s a real appetite for the sort of traditional acoustic blues that you’re playing?
Jontavious Yes most definitely. People are enjoying it. And I try my best to deliver it in a way that’s enjoyable not just, you know, something nostalgic. I try to bring something new to the table, at the same time while being true to what I love and the music.
Gary Yeah, I think you get that sense when you listen to the album, Jontavious. Obviously, it’s very traditional in one sense, but there’s something very fresh and modern about it and there’s a good sense of fun coming through as well.
Jontavious Oh yeah, most definitely. I think it’s a big misconception that the blues, traditional blues, has to be not really engaging or interesting, but you know there are so many different elements. There’s a lot to do with just knowing the history of the music and being from the area of the culture, just knowing that there are so many different aspects of blues. I try to get those points across. Blues is not just sad. It’s happy, it’s angry, every emotion.
Gary So what is it do you think about this music which has been around for such a long time that still resonates with people today?
Jontavious Well for me, being from the south, from where it originated and being around the people that it originated from, it’s always been the truth. And I always have enjoyed the truth. And so that’s my main thing about the blues. People telling a story just like it is – not sugar coating it. I started out in the church and that was a different truth, so I always enjoy any music that represents truth.
Gary Well now that you mentioned that you grew up singing in the church, how important is that background for you both musically and maybe personally?
Jontavious Oh, very important. I learned almost everything I know about music in church. I didn’t know it at the time but I found out about being able to read a crowd. Being able to learn timing, being able to know different phrasing. You know how to present a song and actually be a great performer of a song. Making people feel like they are part of the song and a part of your performance. All of that became instrumental in my music career and my life. So, I learned a lot. It was also communal, going to church was communal. Singing was communal. I always felt better when I was singing in church with my grandpa…I started singing behind my granddaddy.
Gary Fantastic. Now tell us a bit about your guitar playing. You’ve got that highly rhythmical country blues picking down to a fine art. How did you get started playing the guitar and how did you how did you get good?
Jontavious Well I started playing guitar when my dad bought me a guitar on December twenty four 2010. I just started playing – that’s pretty much it! And I kept on doing it, that was basically it. I’d listen to records sometime.
Gary Did you use Youtube videos or did you just listen to records?
Jontavious No I didn’t use YouTube videos because I didn’t play in standard tuning until about 4 years ago. I was playing in alternate tunings. Ever since I learned, playing guitar was what I wanted to do with myself
Gary Very good. So, you just experimented yourself and taught yourself.
Jontavious Yeah that’s it.
Gary I understand you play other instruments as well.
Jontavious Yeah, I play a little bit of harmonica and a little banjo. Not much.
Gary Very good. And Jontavious, you’re a graduate of Colombus State University I understand. What did you graduate in by the way?
Jontavious I had a B.A. in Social Science.
Gary OK. And you’ve obviously decided to make a career out of performing and recording. So, what’s the what’s the attraction of the uncertainties of life as a musician over getting a steady job as a as a graduate?
Jontavious Well I mean I’m a go with the flow kind of guy! And I have been living off music comfortably very well and I’m making more now than I would be otherwise!
Gary So you going to stick with it!
Jontavious If there ever comes a time when I have to make tough decisions I’m always ready! But it seems like It has been doing well. So, I will let the universe take care of itself.
Gary So how are you enjoying life on the road so far?
Jontavious Oh I love it. Every minute of it. I see something different every time and I’m meeting new people. Every almost every town I go in I’ve got a friend. So it’s amazing.
Gary That’s fantastic. And you have a busy schedule of touring over the next few months?
Jontavious Yes I do. Currently I have l think four more shows in the States. And then and end of the month I do Norway, Switzerland and Denmark. And then up next month sometime I get back on the road with Keb’. And yes, I’m happy.
Gary Very cool. Jontavious, thank you so much for talking to us. It’s been great talking to you all the best.
What a great year for music! Here’s a list of Americana albums we enjoyed most in 2017. It’s really too hard to rank these – they’re all great. But in our view the top five listed were really outstanding. The Blind Boys of Alabama’s Almost Home is full of vitality and poignancy, and is very inspiring; Jason Isbell continues to set exceptional standards for song writing and performance; Dori Freeman’s second album showcases her lovely voice and outstanding song writing skills; Rhiannon Giddens’ Freedom Highway is a powerful set of timely songs featuring her amazing musical talents; and Taj Mahal and Keb’ Mo’s collaboration on TajMo was our Blues Album of the Year. All quite mouth watering.
Here’s our first ten:
Blind Boys of Alabama – Almost Home
Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit – That Nashville Sound
So…it’s been another very good year for blues albums. Here is Down at the Crossroad’s view of the 25 Best Blues Albums. All these albums are terrific in their own way, so the ranking doesn’t really mean too much. Doubtless you’ll have your own favourites – by all means let us hear about albums we’ve left out.
Here’s our Top 10:
Taj Mahal & Keb’Mo’: Tajmo
Two huge blues talents combine to give us an exceptional album of uplifting, joyous blues. You just know these two guys are enjoying every minute of playing together. Eleven songs of potent, acoustic blues – pure delight. Here’s our review of their London gig: Review
Van Morrison: Roll with the Punches
Van Morrison’s new album, Roll With the Punches, is an unashamed album of blues songs which pay tribute to the influence of the blues on his own body of work. It’s solid, traditional blues, but always sounds up-to-date and the visceral attraction of the blues that the artist must have felt when he first heard the blues as a teenager is here channelled and explored, so that you can’t help but be drawn in and made to feel the emotion. Here’s our comment on some of the songs: Review
Guy Davis & Fabrizio Poggi: Sonny & Brownie’s Last Train
As fine an acoustic blues album as you will hear all year. Two top modern day artists at the top of their game channelling two of history’s greatest acoustic bluesmen. There’s a warmth, feeling and joy in the way these songs are presented that draws you in and puts a big smile on your face. Check out our album review and then the interview with Fabrizio: Review
Walter Trout: We’re All In This Together
A joyful set of fourteen songs, with a guest on each song, trading licks and runs with Walter. The songs are upbeat, melodic, feature blistering, smouldering guitar work and are hugely enjoyable, each tailored by Trout to the style of each guest. According to Trout, he was just “jamming with his friends and having fun.” Wonderful stuff. Here’s our interview with Walter about the album: Interview
Tedeschi Trucks Band: Live from the Fox Oakland
A big band of 12 world class musicians is a truly wonderful thing. Good as these guys are in the studio, they are sensational live and this album captures them perfectly, with a blend of orginal songs, riveting blues standards, and soulful covers of Leonard Cohen, the Beatles and Derek & the Dominoes. It’s joyful stuff, with Derek Trucks’s peerless electric slide to the fore and Susan Tedeschi quite incredible vocals – blues, soul, Gospel, Americana – doesn’t matter, she’ll nail it. Here’s our review of their Berlin gig this year: Review
Gregg Allman: Southern Blood
The last album from the legendary Allman Brother whom, sadly, we lost this year. It’s a timeless blues and soul record, featuring Allman’s 8 piece road band and a raft of collaborators like the McCrary Sisters, Greg Leisz, Buddy Millar and Scot Sharrard. Mixing songs by Jackson Browne and Bob Dylan with originals, it’s a wonderfully poignant, intimate and ultimately satisfying bookend to Allman’s life and career.
Eric Bibb: Migration Blues
Bibb said of this record, “With this album I want to encourage us all to keep our minds and hearts wide open to the ongoing plight of refugees everywhere.” He gives us American folk music classics, like Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land” and Bob Dylan’s “Masters Of War,” with his own songs about the current refugee crisis – “Prayin’ For Shore,” a gospel-based tune about the exodus from Syria. It’s typical Eric Bibb fare – gorgeous vocals, wondrous picked guitar and songs of faith that go right to the heart.
North Mississippi Allstars: Prayer for Peace
Swamp and hill country blues, as usual, sounding fresh and compelling. With original and classic songs, and including a raft of fine guest musicians, there is raw energy about the album, which blends tradition with a contemporary sound. Prayer for Peace, the title song (which is also recorded on the Blind Boys of Alabama’s Almost Home album) addresses the racial problems facing the US. Luther Dickinson’s characteristic vocals just get better and better.
Mavis Staples: If All I Was Was Black
In songs written by Jeff Tweedy and an album produced by him, Mavis Staples delivers a powerful blues, funk and gospel protest against all that’s currently wrong in America. It’s stiring stuff, but never gets angry. Love is the answer. According to Mavis – “We go high when they go low”
Samantha Fish: Belle of the West
One of two albums she’s released this year, Belle of the West is a fine collection of bluesy Americana. Produced by Luther Dickinson, and featuring a fine set of musicians, it’s rootsy, it’s Southern, and it’s one treat of an album.
And here’s the next 10:
Robert Cray & High Rhythm
Recorded at the legendary Royal Studies in Memphis, this rootsy R&B offering from Cray and his band is mostly covers of little known songs and features Cray’s beautiful voice which hits notes other male singers can only dream of, and his matchless guitar playing with that glassy, pure tone that he coaxes out of his Strat and Matchless amps. Here’s our review of the band’s Belfast gig: Review
Ruthie Foster: Joy comes Back
An album that is both a joyous celebration of life and reflection on the wider world. Lovely bluesy, gospel feel throughout, from 3 time Grammy nominee. Foster said that recording was a challenging and rewarding personal journey. Check out our interview with Ruthie here
Low Society: Sanctified
On their 3rd studio album, Mandy Lemons and Sturgis Nikides have crafted a wonderfully variegated slice of Americana. There’s nothing predictable about this fine album, with Nikides virtuosic slide guitar on display throughout, allied to Lemons’ powerful, but controlled and emotion-stoked vocals. Album review here: Review
Eilen Jewell: Down Hearted Blues
Twelve covers of classic blues songs from the likes of Memphis Minnie, Willie Dixon, Little Walter and Howlin’ Wolf. This is a quite exquisite take on a great set of songs, with wonderful arrangements that fit each perfectly. Combined with Ms. Jewell’s sensitive and adept vocals, it’s a winner.
Jonny Lang: Signs
More blues and more guitar than his last album in 2013, Signs is an album of high energy blues rock, and features some strong song writing, excellent guitar work and Jonny’s characteristic, soulful vocals. Nice work!
Alastair Greene: Dream Train
Hugely enjoyable blues rocker with help from luminaries as Walter Trout, Debbie Davies, Mike Zito, and others. Twelve original songs by Greene and Billy Gibbons’s Nome Zayne make for an adrenalin charged, head banging thrill of a record. Turn it up loud and let blues rock do what it does best – transport you out of your troubles and daily concerns. Here’s our album review: Review
Kat & Co: Blues is the New Cool
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. Clearly the blues, but it’s modern blues – cool blues – which draws you in, speaks to you and lifts your spirits. Here’s our album review
Lew Jetton & 61 South: Palestine Blues
A remarkable piece of work. It’s the blues, it’s dark, it’s raw, it’s frighteningly honest, it’s brutal, it’s poignant. And it asks a lot of questions of the artist, the listener and the world around. The style is electric blues, but done with a sparseness and simplicity that allows the song lyrics and message to come through loud and clear. Our review is here.
Thornetta Davis: Honest Woman
Blues diva Thornetta Davis’s album will draw you in, move you, and get your feet dancing. There’s an upbeat, bold attitude throughout with some inspirational gospel here and a lot of good fun. Check out our review here.
Mandy Brooks: Move On Up
In consideration for this year’s Grammy nominations, Move On Up is as fine a gospel blues album as you’ll hear. It features covers of Bob Dylan, Van Morrison, Blind Willie Johnson, Mississippi Fred McDowell and Curtis Mayfield, all nicely arranged and produced. But it’s Mandy Brooks bluesy, versatile vocals you’ll be enjoying most.
And a final 5:
Music from the American: Epic Series
Hayes McMullan: Everyday Seems Like Murder Here
Otis Taylor: Fantasizing about Being Black
Kenny Wayne Shepherd:Lay It On Down
Eliza Neals: 10,000 Feet Below And our review is here.
Taj Mahal and Keb’ Mo’ have teamed up for an album and tour under the name TajMo. We caught their gig at the lovely old theatre, the Shepherd’s Bush Empire in London, which was packed with appreciative fans.
What a fabulous idea to bring two blues masters together in this way. Two performers with great stage presence, two very different but complementary singing styles and two people clearly with a love of life and music. Add to that mix an outstanding band with drums, bass, saxophone, brass, keyboards and two wonderful singers – and you have a recipe for a hugely entertaining night. Oh, and stir in Keb’ Mo’s guitar virtuosity (and his dazzling range of guitars – that PRS Semi!)
At 75, Taj Mahal’s still got his groove. He jiggled and shook his way onto the stage, shaking a pair of maracas, beaming broadly, as the band played him in, clearly delighted at the raucous reception from the London crowd. And, oh my, that voice – still strong, with a throaty rasp. The man can sing the blues – and play the guitar, harmonica, banjo and ukulele.
Keb’ Mo’ is a hugely talented songwriter, singer, guitarist and performer, but even he seemed to be delighted to be on the same stage as Taj Mahal. Mahal, of course, is a legendary artist who has been performing since the late 60s. As we waited to get into the venue I chatted to Randolph from New York City, who’d first seen and heard Taj Mahal at Woodstock in 1969. Mahal has released more than two dozen studio albums, as well as live albums, and contributions to other people’s records. He’s been nominated for nine Grammy awards, and won two Grammy’s for Best Contemporary Blues Album. Nobody was in any doubt that we were in the presence of a blues legend.
At ten years his junior, Keb’ Mo’ must have been delighted when, after another tasteful guitar solo, the older master called for a reprise with, “One more time, son.”
The collaboration of these two artists dispels the notion that the blues are downbeat or depressing. Friday evening was two solid hours of unmitigated joy. As Taj Mahal says, “Some people think that the blues is about being down all the time, but that’s not what it is. It’s therapeutic, so you can get up off that down.” The blues faces life head on, calls it like it is, but it’s a way to work through trouble and hard times. This performance was fun, even uplifting, and more than a thousand people went away after the performance with huge smiles on their faces and optimism in their souls.
Backing singers needn’t take a back seat. Taj Mahal’s two daughters, Zoe Moon and Deva Mahal smiled, grooved, danced, and of course – sang – their way into the audience’s affections throughout the course of the evening. Their joy in the music was infectious.
Keb’ Mo’ had obviously read our review of his concert last year in Union Chapel, where I bemoaned the fact that he hadn’t played a personal favourite of mine, Life is Beautiful. He, Taj and the band duly rectified that with a sweet version of the song. The setlist overall covered most of the songs on the TajMo album – which I’d highly recommend, by the way – a few Keb’ Mo’ songs and a couple more songs done by Taj Mahal in the past. At the beginning of the concert we had the up tempo Don’t Leave Me Here, a longing for the blues heartland of Mississippi, which drew the audience from the get-go. The band disappeared for a few songs along the way to allow Mahal on acoustic guitar and Mo’ on a Resonator to give us some nice country blues, including the Sleepy John Estes number Diving Duck Blues, which was particularly enjoyable. As the concert drew to a close, the Empire crowd sang and clapped along to Soul, with its African rhythms and world music feel. And let’s not forget All Around the World, with its indomitable optimism:
“What’s all the fuss about, why can’t people just get along?
Maybe we ought to talk about all the good we got goin’ on
Everybody knows there’s a better way
And we’re all hopin’ and prayin’ that one day
There’ll be love all Around the world
There will be peace and understanding All around the world
There will be joy All around the world
There will be happy children singing All around the world.”
There’s a lot of heartache, pain and suffering going on around the world. But New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristoffpointed out recently that, “Despite the gloom, the world truly is becoming a better place.” Indeed, 2017 is likely to be the best year in the history of humanity.” He pointed to the large gains we’ve seen in combating disease and poverty, even in the developing world. Scourges like leprosy, malaria, worm infestation are receding and that’s before we starting thinking about the decline in extreme poverty. Yes, there are still huge challenges and many millions living in desperate conditions – so we must never be complacent or stop the fight for justice. But, there is hope – especially when we strive for peace and understanding. Thanks for the reminder, Keb’.