Friday, July 31, 2020

Archive Review: Albert King's Born Under A Bad Sign (2013)

Albert King's Born Under A Bad Sign
When blues guitarist Albert King signed with Stax Records in 1966, he was a known commodity on the blues circuit, but not yet a star, much less an artist with crossover potential. Based in St. Louis during the late 1950s and early ‘60s, King was a popular draw throughout the Midwest U.S. and had recorded sides for labels like King Records, Vee-Jay, Parrot Records, and others and had even released a full-length album, 1962’s The Big Blues, to little acclaim.

Working in the Stax Records studio in Memphis, Tennessee with the label’s house band, Booker T & the MG’s – keyboardist Booker T. Jones, guitarist Steve Cropper, bassist Donald “Duck” Dunn, and drummer Al Jackson, Jr. – along with Stax songwriter Isaac Hayes and Wayne Jackson and his Memphis Horns, King recorded a bunch of songs between March 1966 and November 1967 that would later comprise his Stax debut album, Born Under A Bad Sign. Widely considered as one of King’s career milestones, the album would bring the guitarist’s unique vision of the blues to a white rock ‘n’ roll audience and influence young musicians like Eric Clapton and Stevie Ray Vaughan.

Albert King’s Born Under A Bad Sign

The album starts out big and bold, the familiar strains of the title song kicking out the jams with reckless aplomb as King’s throaty vocals and equally vocal guitar licks moan their tale of woe. King takes a familiar blues theme – that of the luckless loser, the hapless gambler, the failed ladies man – and pumps it up with his stinging notes riding high above Steve Cropper’s tasteful rhythm guitar and Booker T. Jones’ background keyboards.  “Crosscut Saw” would be equally as audacious, the song’s jaunty rhythm bolstered by the rhythmic muscle provided by the Memphis Horns. King’s guitar playing here is just as grand as on the opening tune, if not more so, displaying more texture and a fluid grace, but the vocals are weak and sound washed out.

The frequently-covered Leiber/Stoller R&B classic “Kansas City” is provided an appropriately swinging arrangement, King sleep-walking his almost-spoken vocals atop a rich soundtrack dominated by the Memphis Horns and “Duck” Dunn’s gorgeous walking bass line. Again, whether due to problems with the original tape or the primitive recording technology, King’s voice unintentionally drops into the background at times, but his lively fretwork bursts above the mix nonetheless. King’s original “Down Don’t Bother Me” is an extension, of sorts, of the title track, pursuing a similar hard-luck lyrical tale, but the guitarist’s playing here is phenomenal, meshing perfectly with Perkins’ horns and Al Jackson’s sparse percussion to great effect. King’s vocals are better-balanced here, providing the right amount of emotion to match his anguished guitarplay.

Laundromat Blues

Blues legend Albert King
Blues legend Albert King
King tackles the well-traveled Booker T. & the MGs’ composition “The Hunter,” which would later be covered by folks from Free to Koko Taylor, the guitarist adding a bit of bravado to his vocal performance. While the song’s double-and-triple-entendre lyrics are pretty frisky when left on their own, King’s deep voice and deeper blue guitar playing add gravitas to the recording. A cover of Ivory Joe Hunter’s “I Almost Lost My Mind” displays King’s versatility as a singer; his somber, heartbroken vocals bring a strong emotion to the words as his subtle guitar lines tell the rest of the story. “Laundromat Blues” is another gem in King’s catalog, a straight-forward blues-as-betrayal tune that channels the romantic woe into a fine vocal performance and tearful fretwork that sizzles with barely-contained rage and frustration.

The 2013 Stax Records reissue of Born Under A Bad Sign offers five bonus tracks in the form of previously-unreleased alternate takes and an untitled instrumental. The first (unused) take of the title track reveals a few differences but otherwise hits every mark as the take that ended up on the album; by contrast, the alternate take of “Crosscut Saw” includes an extra chorus tacked on the end, features a stronger King vocal performance, and all the houserockin’ guitar banging of the original. The bonus version of “The Hunter” also seems more muscular and self-assured, but the album-closing “Untitled Instrumental” is a revelation, King laying the smackdown on a fatback rhythmic groove, the soulful Memphis horns slung low beneath the guitarist’s raging leads, which run amok across the loose-knit studio jam.

The Reverend’s Bottom Line

My colleague Bill Dahl sums it up best in his new liner notes for Born Under A Bad Sign, stating that King would “make more great Stax albums, but he’d never top this one.” King’s performances here are those of a hungry man ready to feast on the world, and they would create an artistic blueprint that the guitarist would hew closely to for the remainder of his career. Although the digital re-mastering provided this 2013 reissue hasn’t cleaned up all of the original audio issues, it has brightened the performances and added extra depth to the sound.

The songs themselves – “Born Under A Bad Sign,” “Crosscut Saw,” “The Hunter,” “Personal Manager,” and “Laundromat Blues,” the album’s first hit single – would become part of King’s canon, superb performances that influenced a generation of blues and blues-rock guitarists to follow. A bona fide classic of electric blues, if you don’t have a copy of King’s Born Under A Bad Sign in your collection, then you don’t have squat! (Stax Records, reissued April 2, 2013)

Buy the CD from Albert King’s Born Under A Bad Sign

Friday, July 24, 2020

Archive Review: Bo Diddley, Muddy Waters & Little Walter's Super Blues (1967/2013)

Bo Diddley, Muddy Waters & Little Walter's Super Blues
The late 1960s were a difficult time for the good folks at Chess Records. The legendary Chicago blues label was struggling to stay relevant in the face of changing musical currents, and the 1950s commercial heyday of its biggest stars – marquee names like Bo Diddley, Chuck Berry, and Muddy Waters – had seemingly long since passed. This led to a number of various musical experiments, attempts to capture lightning in a bottle that extended well into the 1970s, long after the label had been sold before shutting down for good in 1975.

Although the label's experiments in electric blues, rock, and funk found varying levels of critical and commercial success, few of them prompted the debate garnered by 1967's Super Blues and the following year's The Super, Super Blues Band. The former featured the trio of Bo Diddley, Muddy Waters, and Little Walter Jacobs performing in an informal studio jam session, while the latter album replaced the late Little Walter with the great Howlin' Wolf. Super Blues is the better of the two releases, although the second is criminally underrated, and while blues traditionalists have largely dismissed both albums, they served as an important gateway to the blues for many young fans at the time of their release.

Bo Diddley, Muddy Waters & Little Walter's Super Blues

The truth is, Super Blues is a heck of a lot of fun! Although harp legend Little Walter was hanging on by a thread during the recording sessions, the backing band – including guitarist Buddy Guy and longtime Waters' sideman Otis Spann on piano – picked up the slack. The spotlight deservedly shines on Diddley and Waters, the two talents sparring with each other in the studio while delivering solid performances. Super Blues opens with the low-slung Waters' track "Long Distance Call," the master's slide-guitar complimented by Walter's subtle harp while the vocals are nicely split between all three men; Little Walter's hoarse, underpowered voice is overshadowed by the bravado of his co-stars.

Diddley's "Who Do You Love" is provided a reckless, almost riotous performance as Bo and Muddy jawbone with each other above the song's familiar, reliable rhythm. The guitars scream and soar while drummer Frank Kirkland and bassist Sonny Wimberley hold down a fat bottom line. Waters' signature song "I'm A Man" – actually penned by Diddley – represents a duel for the ages, the two aging stars vying for top dog status on a tale that in and of itself is fueled by ego-driven braggadocio. As the song's notorious riff circles the studio like a raging tornado, Waters and Diddley deliver a heavyweight championship bout that could only end in a draw.

You Can't Judge A Book By The Cover

Chicago blues legend Willie Dixon – a talented musician, producer, and songwriter – was instrumental in the success of both Diddley and Waters, so it's only right that he is represented on Super Blues by three of his better songs. "You Can't Judge A Book By Its Cover" was Diddley's last chart hit back in 1962, and had subsequently been covered by blues-loving rockers like the Rolling Stones and the Yardbirds. The version here is down and dirty, with unrelenting rhythms, a chaotic harp line, and chiming guitars dancing alongside Kirkland's machine-gun drumbeats. Waters' entry from the Dixon songbook, "I Just Want To Make Love To You," dates back to 1954 and represented one of the Chicago blues king's biggest hits. A bona fide blues standard, the song has also been successful in the hands of the Stones and, most notably, Foghat, although it's also been covered by Etta James, Chuck Berry, and Buddy Guy, among many others.

On Super Blues, "I Just Want To Make Love To You" is slowed to a smoldering, languid pace, the song's circular riff surrounding Waters' sultry vocals like a halo around his head, Walter spending the last of his strength blowing a fiery solo while Spann pounds the ivories like a madman. It's a strong performance, made all the more entertaining by the verbal jousting between Waters and Diddley. Little Walter takes the spotlight for a low-key replay of his 1955 Dixon-penned #1 hit "My Babe." The vocals are wisely shared by the three stars, as Walter's voice is barely heard in the mix, but it's an engaging performance nonetheless. The album closes with Diddley's spry "You Don't Love Me," Walter's jaunty harp paving the way for some imaginative fretwork on an electrified mix of blues and rock that was a good decade ahead of its time.

The Reverend's Bottom Line

Both Bo Diddley and Muddy Waters would experience ebbing fortunes in the wake of Super Blues and 1968's The Super, Super Blues Band. Although Diddley's commercial peak pre-dated the British invasion of the early-to-mid-1960s, his studio flirtations with funk and rock on albums like 1970's The Black Gladiator and 1972's Where It All Began failed to reignite his career, although they've since been reappraised as solid efforts. Hitting the rock 'n' roll oldies circuit, Diddley remained a popular live performer until his death in 2008.

By contrast, experiments like Waters' Electric Mud (1968) and After The Rain (1969), while doing little to breathe new life into the blues legend's then-moribund career, did lead to triumphs like 1969's Fathers and Sons album, recorded with Michael Bloomfield and Paul Butterfield, as well as The London Muddy Waters Sessions in 1972. These, in turn, led to Waters' late-career resurgence with a brace of albums produced by guitarist Johnny Winter, efforts like 1977's Hard Again and the following year's I'm Ready cementing Waters' already considerable legacy as the greatest the blues has to offer.

Super Blues is by no means a groundbreaking album, but it has withstood the test of time to become a minor classic in its own right, a raucous affair that's well worth another listen for Bo Diddley and Muddy Waters fans alike. Although this Get On Down Records 2013 reissue of Super Blues omits a pair of Little Walter songs from a previous 1992 CD reissue, considering Walter's health when they were recorded, listeners might be better off tracking down one of the esteemed bluesman's "greatest hits" albums for his timeless versions of the missing "Juke" and "Sad Hours." (Get On Down Records, released November 19, 2013)

Also on That Devil Music:
Muddy Waters' Electic Mud CD review
Bo Diddley's The Black Gladiator CD review

Sunday, July 19, 2020

Vinyl Review: Big Bill Broonzy's The Midnight Special (2020)

Big Bill Broonzy's The Midnight Special
The Midnight Special: Live In Nottingham 1957

Side One:
1. This Train
2. Trouble In Mind
3. Willie Mae
4. In the Evening
5. Glory of Love
6. The Midnight Special
7. What King of Man Jesus Is

Side Two:
1. Keep Your Hand Off It
2. Nobody’s Business
3. Hey! Bub
4. The Feasting Table
5. C.C. Rider
6. Swing Low, Sweet Chariot
7. Goodnight Irene

Chicago Blues Legend Big Bill Broonzy

Chicago blues legend “Big Bill” Broonzy was a bridge between the rural, Delta-influenced country blues of the 1920s and ‘30s and the more urbane, sophisticated “big city” blues created in hotbeds like Chicago, Detroit, and St. Louis during the 1940s and ‘50s. Although not as well-known as near-mythical contemporaries like Robert Johnson, Charley Patton, or even Son House, Broonzy’s influence can be heard in the music of those touched by his kindness, giants of the genre like Muddy Waters and Willie Dixon, whose careers he helped when they first arrived in Chicago. Although he died in 1958 at the age of 65 years old, Broonzy’s music also inspired a generation of British rockers like Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones, John Lennon of the Beatles, Dave Davies of the Kinks, and guitarists Rory Gallagher and Eric Clapton, among many others.

Born, literally, on the banks of the Mississippi River, Broonzy moved with his parents to Chicago as a teenager in 1920, picking up the guitar and learning to play from older bluesmen like Papa Charlie Jackson. Broonzy began recording in the mid-‘20s and by the early ‘30s he was a commanding figure on the Chicago blues scene who would help define the city’s early sound. Capable of playing in both the older vaudeville styles (ragtime and hokum) and the newly-developing, more sophisticated Chicago style, Broonzy was a smooth vocalist, accomplished guitarist, and a prolific songwriter.

Broonzy began recording for Paramount in 1927, but it was his work for Bluebird Records during the 1930s, including playing behind talents like Tampa Red, Washboard Sam, and John Lee “Sonny Boy” Williamson, that helped define the popular sound that was known as “The Bluebird Beat.” In 1938, Broonzy performed at John Hammond’s “Spirituals To Swing” concert in New York City as a last-minute replacement for the late Delta bluesman Robert Johnson. The appearance introduced an entirely new audience to his music, winning him a small role in the film Swingin’ The Dream alongside Benny Goodman and Louis Armstrong. When the post-war blues boom rendered Broonzy’s quaint homegrown style a thing of the past, he re-invented himself as a singer of authentic folk-blues and became one of the first blues artists to tour Europe, developing a new and appreciative following among blues-crazed British teens.

Big Bill Broonzy’s The Midnight Special: Live In Nottingham 1957

Chicago bluesman Big Bill Broonzy
Chicago bluesman Big Bill Broonzy
The Midnight Special: Live In Nottingham 1957 documents one of Broonzy’s late-career concerts, this one in Nottingham, England and possibly one of the bluesman’s last-ever performances before his death a year later. The album was mastered from original analog tape by Dave Gardner at Infrasonic Mastering and is surprisingly good, given the antiquated vintage of the recording. A sound engineer can only work with what they have on tape, and recordings from the ‘50s generally don’t have much sonic dynamic to enhance, but Gardner did a fine job here, Broonzy’s vocals and guitar sounding slightly muffled, but distinct enough to be entertaining and better than many dodgy 1990s-era live recordings I’ve heard. And make no mistake, Broonzy’s performance this night was, indeed, very entertaining.

The folk-blues “songster” runs through a setlist here of blues, folk, and Gospel standards, imbuing each with his unique character and charisma. The traditional “This Train” is a perfect showcase for Broonzy’s nimble-fingered fretwork, the song’s up-tempo arrangement complimented by Broonzy’s hearty vocals. The bluesman’s original “Willie Mae” is a similarly upbeat tune with wiry guitar licks and moaned lyrics while a cover of Leroy Carr’s “In the Evening” is provided a smoldering, passionate vocal delivery that is punctuated by Broonzy’s jazzy picking. “The Midnight Special” is a traditional Southern folk tune popularized in the 1930s by the great Leadbelly, and later recorded by everybody from Bob Dylan and Little Richard to the Beatles and Creedence Clearwater Revival. Broonzy’s jaunty reading of the old chestnut is highlighted by his warm vocals and spry guitar strum.

Broonzy’s original “Keep Your Hands Off Her” is mistitled here, the song originally released as a single in 1935 by Bluebird Records and it’s a fine example of the light-hearted “hokum” blues style with buoyant guitar picking and upbeat, double-entendre lyrics. The traditional “Ain’t Nobody’s Business” was recorded with some success by blueswomen like Alberta Hunter and Bessie Smith in the 1920s, and Broonzy’s version here plays up the song’s vaudeville roots with a brilliantly-upbeat performance and jazzy guitar-playing. “The Feasting Table” is one of a handful of Gospel “spirituals” included on The Midnight Special, this one leaning more towards a raucous tent revival in its energetic reading and scattershot guitarplay.

Although the song’s true origins are shrouded in mystery, Broonzy released “C.C. Rider” (a/k/a “See See Rider”) as a single in 1934. Ragtime pianist Jelly Roll Morton recalled hearing the song as far back as 1901, and Broonzy claims to have been taught the song by a former slave when he was but 10 years old. The song is no worse for the wear, however, and Broonzy’s infectious reading here is enhanced by an inspired mix of blues, jazz, and country twang. The Midnight Special closes with two performances from an “informal backstage session,” the spiritual “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” and Leadbelly’s folk-blues standard “Goodnight Irene.” The former is a reverent, fervid performance with Broonzy’s wailing voice staggering at first before breaking into a joyous noise while the latter song is provided a loose, almost rowdy reading with nearly-bellowed vocals and scraps of accompanying guitar.

The Reverend’s Bottom Line

Big Bill Broonzy’s The Midnight Special: Live In Nottingham 1957 offers an impressive representation of the artist’s immense instrumental talents, his on-stage presence and crowd-pleasing patter, and his innate ability to interpret a wide range of then-contemporary musical styles. As mentioned above, the album’s sound quality is better than one could hope for, and the artist’s performance displays why Broonzy was held in such high regard by his peers.

There is precious little “live” Broonzy available for blues fans; just a mere handful of albums now commanding collectors’ prices, and just one of a similar vintage – Southland’s The Historic Concert Recordings CD captures an 18-song Belgium performance from 1957 – which was released in 1990 and has been out-of-print nearly as long. Org Music’s vinyl release of The Midnight Special is the first appearance of this particular show that I could find, and is available on both shiny black wax from Org Music or pressed on coral-colored vinyl, available exclusively from Vinyl Me, Please (links to both below).

If you’re an old-school blues fan unfamiliar with the artist’s charms, you owe it to yourself to check out The Midnight Special, which provides an engaging introduction to Big Bill Broonzy. If you’re already a fan of Broonzy’s music, then what are you waiting for? Get it! (Org Music, released July 24th, 2020)

Buy the vinyl! Org Music link

Buy the colored wax! Vinyl Me, Please link

Friday, July 17, 2020

Archive Review: Bo Diddley's The Black Gladiator (1970/2012)

Bo Diddley's The Black Gladiator
By the late 1960s, Bo Diddley wasn’t the musical force that he’d been almost a decade previous when cuts like “Road Runner” and “You Can’t Judge A Book By Its Cover” were burning up the R&B world even while they also inched onto the pop charts. Even worse, Diddley-influenced acolytes like the Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix, and Eric Clapton had become the new rock ‘n’ roll royalty, leaving Bo as a respected elder statesman and the architect of a revolution that he seemingly no longer had a role in shaping.

As a result, Diddley would turn back to his blues roots, recording a pair of albums with other Chess labelmates that re-purposed several of his rhythm-heavy hits with bluesier performances – 1967’s Super Blues, with Muddy Waters and Little Walter, and 1968’s The Super Super Blues Band, with Waters and Howlin’ Wolf. Neither of these albums did much to revive the flagging careers of the various participants and, in 1969, the unexpected happened when Leonard Chess, the patriarch of the Chess Records family, passed away. The label had already been sold to a company that had little or no idea what to do with its legendary catalog of music, or its rich stable of artists, further marginalizing Diddley’s career.

Bo Diddley's The Black Gladiator

When he entered Chicago’s Ter-Mar Studios in January 1970, the mighty Bo was faced with a daunting task – recording a follow-up to his last solo album, 1965’s 500% More Man. Black music hadn’t been standing still as Diddley was singing the blues with his fellow Chess label colleagues, and the popularity of both blues music and the sort of raucous, houserockin’ R&B that Diddley pioneered had been surpassed with young African-American listeners by the groove-laden funk of Sly & the Family Stone and the Parliament-Funkadelic empire. Similar to what had been done with Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf in attempting to re-mold the old-school bluesmen as psychedelic-blues artists, The Black Gladiator saw Bo Diddley staking his claim as a funkateer in the new decade.

Disregarded by critics at the time, Diddley’s The Black Gladiator was a bold attempt at contemporary legitimacy by the often-misunderstood artist. Unlike Waters’ similarly-dismissed Electric Mud album, or even the Wolf’s This Is Howlin’ Wolf’s New Album, both of which tried to force the bluesmen into a stylistic straitjacket against their will, Diddley seemed to be a willing traveler on this particular musical sojourn. Working with a crew that included such long-time Diddley musical foils as bassist Chester Lindsey and drummer Clifton James, keyboardist Bobby Alexis was the lone new ingredient for this fresh musical direction, and his over-the-top key-pounding would often vie with, and push Diddley’s guitar-playing to new heights.

To be honest, The Black Gladiator is neither as bad as 1970s-era critics would claim, nor as seminal as the album’s newfound 21st century admirers would have you believe. It didn’t take a major leap of imagination to take Diddley’s rhythmic trademarks and stretch them out in the creation of a deeper, fatter groove, as the band does with the album-opening “Elephant Man.” Seemingly drowning in a sea of sound, the rhythm section builds a foundation on top of which Diddley sings/shouts his often-bodacious lyrics above his stinging guitar licks and Alexis’s chiming keyboards. The song evinces a slick groove and an undeniable anarchic spirit, and Diddley’s fretwork is truly inspired. The album’s lone throwback, “You, Bo Diddley,” is the sort of self-aggrandizing rap that Diddley made his reputation with, but while it sports a semi-modified Bo Diddley beat and energetic backing vocals, it’s at best a pale imitation of similar early 1960s performances.

Hot Buttered Blues

Much better is the fluid, funky “Black Soul,” which pairs raw production with a more assured Diddley vocal, Alexis’s livewire keyboard riffs, and a groove deep enough to drive a semi-truck through. Diddley’s wiry chicken-picking is supported by solid rhythm playing from an unknown second guitarist (thought to be his nephew, Ricky Jolivet a/k/a Bo Diddley Jr.). The muscular “Power House” offers the best of both worlds, welding a slowed-down version of the familiar swaggering Diddley beat with a fine, boastful vocal turn, scorching fretwork, and a swinging rhythm.

“I’ve Got A Feeling” opened the original vinyl album’s second side with an infectious funk that rivaled Sly Stone, the slightly-echoed production style providing a more immediate sound. Alexis’s often-discordant keys are part of the bass-drums cacophony upon which Bo embroiders some imaginative guitar lines as the vocals of backing singer Cooke Vee (Cornelia Redmond) were multi-tracked to create a “girl group” sound on a budget, an effective technique. The slow-burning “Hot Buttered Blues” is Bo’s lone nod towards the blues music he cut his teeth on, a loping groove rolling throughout the song as Bo ladles on some fine guitar in this ode to the Chicago blues scene.

Another of the album’s long-lost gems is “Funky Fly,” a blues-rock-funk hybrid with a greasy Mississippi Delta groove, a mesmerizing circular guitar riff that is often echoed by the keyboards, a jackhammer rhythm, and nonsensical shouts and noises that punctuate the song’s deadly instrument jamming. By contrast, “I Don’t Like You” is an odd bird, indeed, Diddley’s vocals mimicking an operatic aria, sounding like a cross between Bugs Bunny and Pavarotti. At the heart of the song is a game of “the numbers” as Bo and a second, higher-pitched voice hurl insults at each other above a slippery groove and choogling keyboards. The effect is disconcerting and absurd even for Diddley, who was certainly no stranger to musical flights of fancy.

The Reverend's Bottom Line

It’s safe to say that you’ve never heard Bo Diddley quite like this before! Out of the ten tracks on The Black Gladiator, six are fully-satisfying performances that display Bo’s larger than life personality and often-underrated musical skills, as well as the talents of his top-notch backing band. A couple of the songs here are merely so-so, passable but more filler-like in quality, and a couple of these tunes will chafe your eardrums.

It’s interesting to note that after releasing this album, Diddley would abandon his funk muse in an attempt to re-make himself as a contemporary songster with 1971’s Another Dimension album before finally returning to the blues, soul, and R&B on which his legacy was built. Overall, in re-considering The Black Gladiator, I’d give the album a B- for sheer chutzpah and a handful of innovative musical ideas. It’s not the Bo of lore, but it ain’t half-bad, either... (Light In The Attic Records, reissued 2012)

Buy the CD from Bo Diddley's The Black Gladiator

Also on That Devil Music: Bo Diddley, Muddy Waters & Little Walter's Super Blues CD review

Friday, July 10, 2020

Archive Review: Tommy Castro & the Painkillers' The Devil You Know (2014)

Tommy Castro & the Painkillers' The Devil You Know
At this point in time, bluesman Tommy Castro is pretty much a familiar face, as big a superstar one can be in the blues genre for anyone not named "Waters," "Wolf," "Walter," or "Guy." Some 20 years after the release of his debut album, with twelve studio and live recordings to his name; with half a dozen Blues Music Awards earned on a dozen nominations, including two "B.B. King Entertainer of the Year" honors, if you're a blues fan and you don't know Castro by now, the only question that remains is what rock you've been living under the past couple of decades.

That's not to say that Castro is a dinosaur or deaf to changes in the genre that he's helped define over the years. Neither is Castro immune to trends – cultural and economic – and while there was some minor carping a year or so ago when he broke up his long-running Tommy Castro Band to assemble a leaner and meaner outfit in the Painkillers, the new band is OK by me. With a TCB holdover in bassist Randy McDonald, Castro added keyboardist James Pace and drummer Byron Cage and was with these Painkillers that he went into the studio to record The Devil You Know. A welcome change of pace,  the new album retains all the stuff that fans loved about Castro and mixes it up with a fresh, stripped-down sound that is raw, rockin', and more immediate than the BMA winning Hard Believer album, which was released five years and a virtual lifetime ago. 

Tommy Castro & the Painkillers' The Devil You Know

The title track of The Devil You Know is indicative of Castro's new direction, which isn't all that much different from his old direction – just dirtier, nastier, and bluesier with no horns and a distinct Delta groove running like the Mississippi River beneath the arrangement. Castro's rattletrap guitar scrapes and swoons in the heat of the performance, the band crashing and clashing behind its frontman in making a glorious, rhythmic noise. Castro's slight electronically-altered vocals are befitting the lyrics, adding a bit of chaos to the affair, a discomforting disconnect bolstered by his screaming, razor-sharp guitar solos and blustery vocals.

Castro changes directions on a dime with "Second Wind," a funky, West Coast R&B inflected romp that reminds of 1960s-era Cali bands like Sons of Champlin mixed with Southern blues-eyed soul revues like Delaney & Bonnie & Friends. The song's vigorous percussion hints at an exotic, Latin-flavored rhythm while Castro's slippery vocals and lively fretwork dance atop the song's deep groove. A cover of former Savoy Brown frontman Chris Youlden's "I'm Tired" is a rhythmic blues-rocker notable mostly for guest picker Joe Bonamassa's riptide guitar licks, Castro's forceful, gruff vocals, and the amazing guitar interplay between the two talents. The song itself was nothing special until these two forces of nature laid a little grease in the grooves, turning it into a bona fide barn burner…

When I Cross The Mississippi

Tommy Castro photo by Steve Sherman
Tommy Castro photo by Steve Sherman
A cover of Chicago blues legend J.B. Lenoir's "The Whale Have Swallowed Me" builds upon what was great about the original – the song's imaginative lyrics, its spry foot-shuffling groove, languid guitarplay – by adding a heaping helping of James Pace's tinkling ivories, Tasha Taylor's vocals (which compliment Castro's grittier tones), and Castro's taut guitar licks. This is the sort of big-boned R&B romp that the Tedeschi Trucks Band has build its rep on, and Tommy and Tasha knock it out of the park with glee.

"When I Cross The Mississippi" is a curious hybrid, some of the song's blusier elements a throwback to early 1970s sounds while dancing partner Tab Benoit brings his guitar and a contemporary Louisiana R&B feel to the tune. The chemistry between Benoit and Castro is heightened by Mike Finnigan's chiming keyboards and drummer Byron Cage's relentless big-beat timekeeping. Now that Castro has everybody warmed up and ready to roll, we rock right into "Mojo Hannah," a greasy garage-blues number with a New Orleans vibe written by Andre Williams. Joined by the great Marcia Ball on vocals and piano, Castro and his Legendary Rhythm & Blues Revue bandmate raise the roof with an energetic, fun, and raucous take on the song that crackles with electricity.

Keep On Smilin'

Castro's original "Two Steps Forward" is a thunderstorm blues-rocker that would have been right at home in the late 1960s British blues boom. A monster riff leads into Castro's bellowing vocals, the song suddenly breaking into a too-cool-for-school soul party with the Holmes Brothers adding righteous backing vocals and Magic Dick channeling the spirits of Little Walter and Sonny Boy Williamson with his quicksilver harp runs. Castro gets into a bit of the supernatural himself with "She Wanted To Give It To Me," his soaring solos blasting from your speakers like zombie Hendrix, his vocal gymnastics matched by a stomping, stammering rhythm that joyfully bludgeons your ears from the first note.

An inspired cover of Wet Willie's 1970s-era Southern rock classic "Keep On Smilin'" is spot-on; the band laying down a soulful bedrock for Castro's fine vocals with Mike Duke's subtle keyboard flourishes riding low beneath the well-oiled rhythms. Castro's guitarwork doesn't get to shine until around three-minutes in, when his solo intertwines with guest guitarist Mark Karan to recreate a beautiful twin-guitar sound reminiscent of Duane Allman and Dickey Betts. Castro's voice takes a backseat altogether on "Medicine Woman," the talented Ms. Samantha Fish taking the lead here and imbuing the song with an incredible energy and vitality. As good a guitarist as Fish is – and it would have been good to hear her play here – as a singer she simply sets the song on fire as her vocals fly high above Castro's flamethrower git licks, Pace's tasty keyboards, and the hypnotic, syncopated rhythms. All the song's elements combine to create a bit of real musical magic.      

The Reverend's Bottom Line

The Devil You Know is Tommy Castro as you've never heard him before, two decades of hard-won experience and thousands of miles of roadwork combined in the creation of a career-defining work. As a producer, Castro proves to have a deft hand on the controls, The Devil You Know showcasing his frequently-underrated vocals and definitely overlooked six-string skills. If you're familiar with Castro, you may want to give him another listen, and if you're a blues newcomer, The Devil You Know is an entertaining, highly-rocking introduction to the charms, charisma, and talents of Tommy Castro. (Alligator Records, released January 21, 2014)

Buy the CD from Tommy Castro & the Painkillers' The Devil You Know

Friday, July 3, 2020

Archive Review: Joe Louis Walker's Hornet's Nest (2014)

Joe Louis Walker's Hornet's Nest
With the vast majority of musicians, by the time they get a couple of decades under their belt and two dozen albums into a career – if they're talented, driven, and lucky enough to get that far – the artist begins to run out of gas, creatively, struggling to find their muse. As for blues guitarist Joe Louis Walker, not only is he finding new ways of expressing himself nearly 30 years after the release of his debut album, both lyrically and musically Hornet's Nest sounds like Walker has a full tank of gas and he's ready to roll!

Following up on his acclaimed 2012 album Hellfire, Walker returned to Nashville, the new blues Mecca, to once again record with talented producer, musician, and songwriter Tom Hambridge (Buddy Guy, James Cotton). Working with the same firecracker studio band that helped make Hellfire such an unqualified success – guitarist Rob McNelley, bassist Tommy MacDonald, and keyboardist Reese Wynans, with Hambridge on drums – Walker spanks the amps on a dozen rock-solid performances, including nine original songs that run the gamut from old-school blues to British blues-rock, and even a fine gospel moment.

Joe Louis Walker's Hornet's Nest

Much as he did with Hellfire, Walker cranks up the voltage from the first note, opening the album with the title track, as greasy and satisfying a slab o' blues back-bacon that will ever tickle your musical palate. Stinging fretwork and bombastic rhythms lay the foundation for a blistering performance. The song is, at its core, a fresh take on the old blues trope of love and jealously, only writ large with monster riffs and heavy instrumentation. Walker and his co-writers spin some clever metaphors within their lyrics, but what really makes it work are Walker's nasty vocals and nastier git-licks, as brutal an assault on the blues as you'll hear, full of spit and venom and raw emotion. It's a real kick-in-the-pants-seat of an album opener, so what's an artist to do for an encore?

How about "All I Wanted To Do," a complete change of direction stylistically and every bit as appealing to the ears as the title track. More pop-oriented in tone, Walker's brightly-hued vocals are no less imbued with emotion, the singer channeling heartbreak here rather than anger, his vox crossing Prince with Bobby "Blue" Bland to great effect, embellishing the lyrics with a melodic guitar solo full of tone and imagination that rides smoothly atop the rollicking brassy licks of the horn section. "As The Sun Goes Down" changes the mood once again; a more traditional, mid-tempo blues tune with a few swampy licks thrown in for good measure, Walker's tear-jerk vocals are enhanced by the crying notes he coaxes out of his instrument. Every bit of the song's power comes from the mournful fretwork, Walker wringing as much blood, sweat, and tears out of his stick as any great blues guitarist you'd care to name.

Ride On, Baby

Walker's ear for fresh music is simply invigorating, and he puts it to good use on a playful cover of Carl Perkins' "Don't Let Go." A Top 20 hit for the great Isaac Hayes back in 1980, Walker's version straddles the common ground between Perkins' rockabilly-tinged original and Hayes funkier R&B cover. The swinging rockabilly rhythm is evident here, and Walker's surprisingly spry vocals capture perfectly Perkins' swagger and charisma, but he dirties it up a bit with an undeniable R&B groove driven by Wynans' chiming keyboards and inspired backing vocals. Hambridge's "Ramblin' Soul" is an entirely different creature, a big-boned blues-rock monolith that wouldn't have sounded out of place on an old Savoy Brown album. Walker's razor-sharp guitar cuts a wide swath through the arrangement while the stomp 'n' stammer rhythms hit your ears like a mortar blast. The song jams on for nearly six minutes, guitars screaming and cymbals crashing in the creation of a musically cathartic moment.  

Following "Ramblin' Soul," Walker's take on the Rolling Stones "Ride On, Baby" is so doggone full of enchantment and wide-eyed innocence that it's just a pure joy to listen to over and over again. Digging the often-overlooked Jagger/Richards composition up from 1967's Flowers album, Walker dusts off the psychedelic-pop sheen yet still retains the song's mid-1960s baroque Stones sound. It's an uplifting moment devoid of guitar pyrotechnics and studio gimmickry, just a heck of a lot of fun to hear and, I presume, to have recorded in the first place, especially the cheeky Otis Day & the Knights outro.

Ditto for the raucous "Soul City, which evinces a stone cold Sly & the Family Stone vibe while name-checking various locales like Chicago, Detroit, and even Oslo, Norway, among others. The song is built on a descending bass riff like a vintage Sly Stone jam, with plenty of chaotic instrumentation and swirling guitars building a lively soul party. Hornet's Nest closes out with the gospel-tinged "Keep The Faith," Walker's reverent vocals displaying a different side to his talents, the singer sounding a lot like Bobby Womack in delivering an incredibly powerful yet nuanced performance that harkens back to his years with the Spiritual Corinthians Gospel Quartet during the 1980s. The song is an inspiring nod to the artist's faith as well as an elegant note to close the album out on.       

The Reverend's Bottom Line

Joe Louis Walker has been playing professionally since he was a teenager, nearly 50 years now, and he's literally shared a stage and rubbed shoulders with nearly every American and British blues musician of note, from John Lee Hooker and John Mayall to Muddy Waters, Jimi Hendrix, and Michael Bloomfield. Few would blame Walker if he wanted to call in a few of his markers and coast on his accomplishments. Hornet's Nest shows that there's plenty of life left in the fiery bluesman yet, Walker not one to rest on his laurels when there's music to be made. Hornet's Nest is the guitarist's strongest, diverse, and most entertaining album to date and, after a couple dozen acclaimed previous efforts, that's no mere hyperbole... (Alligator Records, released February 23, 2014)

Buy the CD from Joe Louis Walker's Hornet's Nest

Wednesday, July 1, 2020

New Music Monthly: July 2020 releases

It's July and summer is in full-swing, and while many labels have pulled new LPs from their heavy-hitters until the fall, when things may have calmed down a bit, that doesn't mean that there isn't a bunch of groovy tunes coming our way this month. There are new albums from Americana legends Ray Wylie Hubbard (recorded with friends like Joe Walsh and Larkin Poe) and the Jayhawks, 1980s rock icons the Pretenders and the Psychedelic Furs; as well as prog-rock from Steve Howe, hip-hop from The Streets, and post-punk from Gang of Four, to name but a few. The archival releases are hopping, too, with R&B classics from James Booker and Irma Thomas, a long-overdue compilation album from Bill Kirchen, a long overdue reissue of the too-cool-for-school Flamin' Groovies album Now, and much more!
Release dates are probably gonna change and nobody tells me when they do. If you’re interesting in buying an album, just hit the ‘Buy!’ link to get it from’s just that damn easy! Your purchase puts valuable ‘store credit’ in the Reverend’s pocket that he’ll use to buy more music to write about in a never-ending loop of rock ‘n’ roll ecstasy! If you're boycotting Amazon and don't have an indie record store close by, may we suggest shopping with our friends at Grimey's Music in Nashville? They have a great selection of vinyl available by mail order, offer quick service, and if you don't see what you want on their website, check out their Discogs shop!

Grateful Dead's Workingman's Dead

The Beths - Jump Rope Gazers   BUY!
The Flamin' Groovies - Now   BUY!
Glass Animals - Dreamland   BUY!
Grateful Dead - Workingman's Dead: 50th Anniversary Edition [3-CD box]   BUY!
Ray Wylie Hubbard - Co-Starring   BUY!
The Jayhawks - XOXO   BUY!
The Streets - None of Us Are Getting Out of This Life Alive   BUY!
Rufus Wainwright - Unfollow the Rules   BUY!

The Pretenders' Hate For Sale

Gang of Four - Anti Hero   BUY!
Laraaji - Sun Piano   BUY!
The Pretenders - Hate For Sale   BUY!
The Shaggs - Shaggs' Own Thing [vinyl reissue]   BUY!

Bill Kirchen's The Proper Years

Jon Hassell - Seeing Through Sound (Pentimento Volume Two)   BUY!
Bill Kirchen - The Proper Years [two-disc retrospective]   BUY!

James Booker's Classified

James Booker - Classified [vinyl reissue]   BUY!
The Coronas - True Love Waits   BUY!
Fontaines D.C. - A Hero's Death   BUY!
Steve Howe - Love Is   BUY!
The Psychedelic Furs - Made of Rain   BUY!
Irma Thomas - After the Rain [vinyl reissue]   BUY!

Flamin' Groovies' Now

Album of the Month: Hands down, I gotta go with the long-overdue CD reissue of the Flamin' Groovies' Now! The band's 1978 follow-up to the transcendent Shake Some Action, it found the Groovies hitting the reset button with new guitarist Mike Wilhelm (The Charlatans) on a set comprised largely of covers of songs from the Beatles, Paul Revere and the Raiders, the Rolling Stones, and Cliff Richard. There are a few new original tunes by bandleader Cyril Jordan, but overall it felt like the band was trying to find its footing again after delivering a trio of classic rock 'n' roll discs in the early-to-mid-70s.

Still, Now has been out-of-print on CD for roughly 15 years, so it's good to get it back. Plus, next month our friends at MVD will be reissuing the Groovies' 1979 LP, Jumpin' In the Night. Now, if only some archival label would get around to reissuing those late '70s Roy Loney & the Phantom Strangers albums, all would be good with the world...