Friday, May 27, 2022

Archive Review: Gary Moore’s Back To The Blues (2001)

Gary Moore’s Back To The Blues
Guitarist Gary Moore has been around the block a time or two, honing his axe on highly-amped rock ‘n’ roll boogie (the original Skid Row), jazz-rock fusion (Colosseum II), and hard rock (Thin Lizzy). His solo career, which has stretched out for better than a quarter-century, has encompassed all these styles and more, Moore capable of playing everything from the heaviest of metal to progressive rock. The blues, though...the blues are where Moore seems most at home, and although he’s visited the genre more than once during his lengthy career, he’s never embraced it as he has with Back To the Blues.

Gary Moore’s Back To The Blues

Moore’s blues pedigree is an honest one. Mentored by Fleetwood Mac founder Peter Green as a teen, Moore has held his own with great guitarists like Green and Albert King. As such, he’s no stranger to the sound he’s created on Back To the Blues. Mixing original songs with blues standards, Moore delivers a solid collection, his masterful six-string work sometimes roaring, sometimes weeping, but always evoking the blues. The album-opening “Enough of the Blues” is a bone-cruncher with snarling vocals and red hot riffs. Tackling Albert King’s “You Upset Me Baby,” Moore tailors it to his purposes with a brassy Chicago blues arrangement complete with tasty horns.

Moore revisits T-Bone Walker’s “Stormy Monday” in high style, and the Yardbirds’ gem “I Ain’t Got You” is afforded a lush arrangement with fluid guitar work that echoes the original. A Moore original, “Pictures of the Moon” is an atmospheric tune, heavy on ambiance and spacey six-string work that reminds me of Robin Trower. “The Prophet” is a wonderful instrumental track, Moore expressing the collective history of the blues in a six-minute display of musical virtuosity. The album-closing “Drowning In Tears” features heavy, syncopated rhythms, Moore’s mournful vocals, and some tasteful, minimalist guitar shuffling that is all the more powerful for its sparseness.

The Reverend’s Bottom Line

If you’re looking for some blues to heat up your turntable, forget that weak Eric Clapton stuff that you’ll find on display at your local record store – “Slowhand” fell asleep years ago in my humble opinion. Seek out Gary Moore’s Back To the Blues instead and experience a heartfelt performance from a maestro still inspired by the blues muse. (Sanctuary Records, released 2001)

Review originally published by Alt.Culture.Guide™ zine, 2001

Buy the CD from Amazon: Gary Moore’s Back To the Blues

Book Review: Glenn Hughes: The Autobiography (2011)

Glenn Hughes: The Autobiography
Glenn Hughes is a contradiction – the talented singer, songwriter, and musician remains a relatively obscure figure in America, in spite of his status as a bona fide rock ‘n’ roll legend. Although you may not have heard of Hughes, or maybe remember his name only vaguely, chances are that if you’re a fan of ye olde “classic rock,” you’ve probably heard the “voice of rock” upon a time.

Hughes’ tenure with bands such as Trapeze, Deep Purple, and Black Sabbath during the 1970s and ‘80s has long been the stuff of myth, while collaborations with like-minded musicians like Sabbath’s Tony Iommi, singer Joe Lynn Turner, and guitarist Pat Thrall have only added to his legacy. Throw in a moderately successful solo career (especially in Europe) that has yielded almost two-dozen recordings, and add Hughes’ role as an integral part of the classic rock supergroup Black Country Communion, and the question becomes not “who is Glenn Hughes” but, rather, “why haven’t you heard of Glenn Hughes?”

Glenn Hughes: The Autobiography

With better than 40 years of rock ‘n’ roll history behind him, Hughes has some stories to tell, and tell them he does in Glenn Hughes: The Autobiography. Unlike similar celebrity rock bios that either shovel mud on somebody else (Keith, I’m thinking of you) or mindlessly revel in behavioral excesses (ahem, Mutley Crew…), the punches that Hughes throws are almost exclusively thrown at himself. Glenn has been a bad boy through the years, and the decades of soul-seeking and struggling with addiction he reveals in these pages aren’t shared as thinly-veiled boasts but rather as cautionary tales.

Although Hughes’ longtime struggle with cocaine is certainly no secret to many in the industry, the extent to which it threatened to derail his career is shocking in its extremity. That Hughes managed to come out the other side of decades of abuse with his musical gifts and sense of humor intact is not only amazing, but downright encouraging. Aside from the obvious sincerity that shines from the pages of Glenn Hughes: The Autobiography, Hughes’ conversational style and the way he frames his story conveys a friendliness and down-to-earth personality that the average reader can relate with. Personally, I’ve spoken with Hughes on occasion, and have always been struck at the ease in which he engages you…it’s like meeting an old friend on the street and coming away thinking “what a hell of a guy!”  

As for the dirt in Glenn Hughes: The Autobiography, there’s little of it, really, although Hughes comes embarrassingly clean on a number of high-profile sexual and romantic liaisons, and offers the truth, from his perspective, of a number of high and low points throughout his storied career, most of the self-professed lows involving drugs of one sort or another. The bio begins with a brief overview of his childhood and teen years, and touches upon his early musical efforts. Hughes’ first band of note, the vastly-underrated Trapeze, is covered to some extent, leading up to the unexpected break that would launch his career into the stratosphere – his recruitment as a member of Deep Purple.

Joining Deep Purple

Joining Deep Purple in 1973 was a huge advance for the young singer and bass player’s career. Purple was already one of a handful of jet-setting, globe-spanning superstar rock bands at the time, and Purple’s choice to bring in Hughes and vocalist David Coverdale to replace Ian Gilliam and Roger Glover had the band’s longtime fans wondering. Hughes contributed bass and vocals to three of the band’s mid-to-late 1970s studio albums, and a handful of live discs, and he goes into detail on his time with the band, his relationships with both old members like Jon Lord and Ian Paice as well as newcomers like Coverdale and, later, Tommy Bolin. For a Purple fan, Hughes’ memories of his time with the band – positive and negative – provide priceless inside info.

After the break-up of Deep Purple, Hughes would be involved with a number of various projects, some more successful, creatively and/or commercially, than others. There would be a short-lived Trapeze reunion, a pair of well-regarded albums made with former Pat Travers guitarist Pat Thrall (Hughes/Thrall); an unsatisfying collaboration with blues-rock guitarist Gary Moore; and a number of projects with Tony Iommi, some better than others, that would culminate in the ill-conceived Iommi solo work cum Black Sabbath album-in-name-only Seventh Star. Some of these projects Hughes touches upon only fleetingly, others he offers more detail, but often they are just presented as an interesting aspect of the overall narrative flow.

Also only briefly addressed is Hughes’ seemingly secret career as a studio gun for hire. Although Hughes’ career is indelibly marked by high-profile band memberships and musical collaborations, he has also often lent his talents to a lengthy list of other artists’ recordings. Among Hughes’ session credits are those one would expect – guest appearances on albums by Purple alumni like Roger Glover, Jon Lord, and Tommy Bolin – the not entirely unexpected, such as singing with Pat Travers or Ken Hensley (Uriah Heep), and the surprisingly diverse, including sessions with the KLF, Motley Crue, Ryo Okumoto, and Quiet Riot, among many others. One gets the sense that Hughes brought his unique voice to many of these sessions not for monetary gain (although there probably was some) but rather because of the immense joy he has in the music.

Play Me Out

Given short-shrift by Glenn Hughes: The Autobiography is the artist’s lengthy and, at times, brilliant solo career, which began in 1977 has since resulted in a number of solid albums of Hughes’ trademark funk-infused rock ‘n’ soul music. Although Hughes touches upon a few of the milestones of his solo work, including his 1977 debut Play Me Out, he concentrates mostly on his post-sobriety recordings of the 21st century, which include such gems as 2003’s Songs In the Key of Rock, 2005’s Soul Mover, and 2006’s Music For the Divine.

A little more insight is provided Hughes’ role in the formation of Black Country Communion with blues-rock guitarist Joe Bonamassa, drummer Jason Bonham, and keyboardist Derek Sherinian. Hughes has seemingly found a new creative spark playing alongside these three talented musicians, and the overwhelming European acceptance of the band’s blues, rock, and soul hybrid sound has added another interesting chapter to Hughes’ still-ongoing story. Two studio albums and a live CD and DVD into the career of a band that’s only a couple of years old, only stateside dominance as eluded Black Country Communion so far.

Glenn Hughes: The Autobiography is constructed as a sort of oral history, with Hughes’ recollections punctuated by commentary from family (including his wife and parents), friends like Rob Halford (Judas Priest) and Tom Morello, and former bandmates like Coverdale, Thrall, and Iommi. Woven throughout Hughes’ tales of famous musicians and various girlfriends, however, is that of his struggle in the face of overwhelming addiction, including the self-deceit, the rationalized relapses, and the final moment of clarity where Hughes heard the voice of God (not literally, tho’ maybe…I’m not revealing any spoilers!) that led to his current sobriety and obvious joy of life.

The Reverend’s Bottom Line

Overall, Glenn Hughes: The Autobiography tells an amazing and engaging story – that of the rock star brought down to earth and subsequently resurrected to enjoy a second (third?) chapter of his career. One aspect of the book seemingly overlooked by others who have reviewed it is the perspective of the various people who have offered their comments on Hughes. Without exception, they all seem genuinely relieved that Hughes has found peace with himself, their comments displaying a fondness for the man and an appreciation of his talents…for Glenn Hughes is living proof that a nice guy can finish first… (Jawbone Press, published November 1st, 2011)

Review originally published by Blurt magazine, 2012

Buy the book from Amazon: Glenn Hughes: The Autobiography

Saturday, May 21, 2022

CD Review: Joe Grushecky & the Houserockers' American Babylon (1995/2021)

Joe Grushecky & the Houserockers' American Babylon
I bought my first Iron City Houserockers’ album on a whim, after seeing a picture single of “Love’s So Tough” featuring the same soft-focus, high-contrast photo of  feminine beauty that was to be found on the front cover of the band’s debut album of the same name. A cursory glance at the credits (if not the band’s name) revealed their Pittsburgh roots, enough to sell it to this Greensburg, Pennsylvania-born Pirates fan. That purchase happened around 1979 or so, just as the first exhilarating wave of punk was fading away and rock music was threatening to become dreadfully bland once again.

A quick listen to the I.C. Houserockers put those fears to rest, the band kicking out a bluesy, street-smart style of rock ‘n’ roll with lyrics concerning themselves with the hopes and dreams and desires of the great unwashed working class, of which I was a proud member. I became a life-long fan of the band, and it was greatly disappointing that the I.C. Houserockers never found an audience beyond its cult of hardcore fans and appreciative critics. The band broke up before the great mid-‘80s indie rock boom, leaving in their wake a handful of albums and a lot of great songs. Luckily, the talent behind the band – singer, songwriter, and guitarist Joe Grushecky – would later embark on what is now a lengthy and critically-acclaimed solo career as an indie rocker.

Joe Grushecky’s American Babylon

Flash forward from 1979 to 1995 and the release of Grushecky’s landmark album, American Babylon. Produced by rock superstar Bruce Springsteen, who also co-wrote a song and played and sung on several others, it represented the first significant Springsteen creative collaboration since Southside Johnny’s early albums in the late ‘70s. Although Bruce’s name, at the time, didn’t carry the weight it once did in mainstream rock, it still provided thrilling possibilities. Along for the ride were the Houserockers, those seasoned veterans who had worked with Grushecky on the early solo discs – guitarist Bill Toms, drummer Joffo Simmons, and original I.C. Houserockers bassist Art Nardini.

From the opening lyrics of “Dark and Bloodied Ground” to the fateful closing riffs of “Only Lovers Left Alive,” American Babylon is a powerful collection of songs, brimming over with the sort of rock ‘n’ roll spirit that most artists never approach, much less capture in song. Much like Springsteen himself, Grushecky was raised on the music of the 1950s and ‘60s, the first generation literally weaned on rock ‘n’ roll and infatuated with the power of the music to change lives, the music’s ability to transcend class and race, and its promise of escape.

Like Springsteen, Grushecky is also teller of tales, a point illustrated by cuts like “Never Be Enough Time,” with its ill-fated lovers, or the broken family searching for hope on “Only Lovers Left Alive.” The passion and emotion expressed on “Labor of Love” comes only with age and experience, lifting the cut far above the level of the typical love song you’ll hear on the radio. Thirty years of American history are dissected by the clever verses of “What Did You Do In the War.” Phrased as a child’s questions to their father, the song crams Vietnam, 1960s-era rock and Woodstock, the moon walk, Iran-Contra, and much more into the child’s innocent queries. “No Strings Attached” is an anthemic rocker reminiscent of the old Iron City Houserockers’ finest moments.

In Homestead

Joe Grushecky photo by Pam Springsteen
It’s with his social commentary, however, that Grushecky’s skills as a wordsmith really shine. Witness “Homestead,” the logical sequel to “The Biddle Mine” from Grushecky’s 1989 “solo” debut, Rock and Real. The story of a steel mill worker, it evokes memories of Springsteen’s “My Hometown,” with a more midwestern, ‘rust belt’ point-of-view. Co-written with Springsteen, the song describes the horrors of the foundry – as close to hell, I’m told, as one can get on Earth – with a poet’s deft touch: “And the steel glowed in the white hot chambers/The furnace spit fire and smoke/And the sunlight came through the cracks in the roof/The dust was so thick you could choke.”

“Homestead” speaks with great eloquence of organized labor’s betrayal of the working man and expresses the importance of the mill town community to the workers (“It was more than a job, it was my family/I got married, settled down, bought a home/And in the bars down the street, in the late summer heat/You never had to feel alone”). In the end, it’s the loss of the job and the stubborn loyalty of the worker to a dying industry that remains: “I got work tearin’ those old mills down/Until there’s nothing left but the sweat and blood in the ground/At night we tuck our little babies in bed/We still pray to the red, white and blue in Homestead.”

If the story told by “Homestead” is strong in its simplicity, the sort of ode to the working man that Woody Guthrie championed, then it is American Babylon’s title cut that tears off the veil that covers what Guthrie’s cherished land has become. The song’s opening verse is based on a true event suffered by Grushecky: “A kid stole my car the other day/Broke in and drove it away/Took it for a joy ride and when he was done/Held up a liquor store with a great big gun/He said I didn’t do nothing wrong/It’s just the way we live around here.”

The song rolls into an anecdote of a junkie’s dilemma, her desire mixing with pragmatism before slamming into the chorus: “In American Babylon, puttin’ my protection on/Got everything I need – drugs, money, sex and greed/In American Babylon, puttin’ my blindfold on/I can’t tell right from wrong/In American Babylon.” Backed by a no-frills, guitar-driven soundtrack, “American Babylon” sums up the results of three decades of ill-conceived social policy in a few short lines. It’s a powerful statement of despair, one far-too-seldom expressed by rock music in any era.

American Babylon Revisited

The recently-released two-disc version of American Babylon expands the album with a trio of demo tracks tacked onto the first disc, while the second disc offers a raucous live set by Grushecky and the Houserockers, playing on their home turf at Nick’s Fat City, with Springsteen as a special guest. All three of the demo songs are winners, providing an invaluable blueprint to the construction of the final versions. “Never Be Enough Time” and “Only Lovers Left Alive” are both finely-crafted songs with smart, insightful lyrics that would stand out in any situation; I’m still not a huge fan of “Chain Smokin’,” which nevertheless gets the job done in a workmanlike fashion.

On the original album, “Chain Smokin’” serves an important purpose in bringing the listener down from the ledge after the lightning bolt that is “Dark and Bloody Ground.” The haunting “Only Lovers Left Alive” is enchanting in this subdued initial take, but the full album version provides a simply devastating ending to American Babylon, the song’s desolate lyrical theme writ large with its explosive instrumentation. Grushecky’s powerful vocals, wavering with emotion, are matched by his taut, evocative fretwork and the band’s muscular soundtrack. It’s one of Grushecky’s best songs in a catalog full of winners, and the original album version’s awe-inspiring instrumental ending provokes shivers with every listen.

I was lucky enough to see Grushecky and the Houserockers perform for the first time on the American Babylon tour and it was easily one of the top three rock ‘n’ roll shows that I’ve ever witnessed out of hundreds. Playing in Nashville at the smallish 3rd and Lindsley club, the band dominated the postage stamp-sized stage, spilling over into the audience. Joe jumped up on our table in front of the stage for a guitar solo and the audience of around 100 drunk-on-rock ‘n’ roll patrons went nuts. The live disc of American Babylon offers similar cheap thrills, Grushecky and his talented band commanding the stage at the Pittsburgh venue in October 1995. The twelve-song set features much of the American Babylon album, performed with all the electricity and energy Houserockers fans have come to expect.

The live versions of “Dark and Bloody Ground” and “Homestead” are particularly brutal, offering the full, complex instrumentation of the studio versions but pumped-up on steroids. Grushecky’s fiery fretwork leaves scorched earth in its wake on the former, while the latter is a deceptively damning slab of working class blues. Joe throws old-school I.C. Houserockers fans a bone with a swinging take on that band’s “Pumping Iron,” and Bruce joins in fun for high-octane performances of his roadhouse rocker “Light of Day” and the booger-rock jaunt “Down the Road Apiece,” which would sound perfectly at home in any Southern juke-joint. The live disc is more than enough reason to pick up the expanded reissue of American Babylon. I’ve heard bootleg recordings of Joe’s shows from the club, and they never sounded this good, producer Rick Witkowski (also a member of prog-rockers Crack the Sky) doing a magnificent job of capturing the band’s livewire set on tape.

The Reverend’s Bottom Line

Joe Grushecky has often been compared to Springsteen, because of his similar vocal style and sound, the commonality of their musical influences, and their shared lyrical concerns for the working class as related in story and song. It’s an unfair comparison, however, one that robs both artists of their dignity and creative integrity. The two rockers are similar enough to fit into the same critical pigeonhole, sympathetic enough to understand the other’s plight, but there the similarities end. Both are extremely talented artists, among the best that rock ‘n’ roll has ever produced.

Since the mid-‘90s release of American Babylon, Springsteen has become an elder statesman of rock ‘n’ roll tradition, still creating engaging music but with nowhere near the commercial impact he had in the ‘80s, after the release of Born In the U.S.A. and the accompanying worldwide tours. By comparison, Joe Grushecky has been forced to stay true to his muse, working for every break he’s received, staying honest by default. It’s hard to sin when temptation is never offered. He’s a rocker through and through, his work influenced by weary experience formed by hundreds (thousands?) of nights slamming out tunes in bars and clubs.

Although he and Bruce have remained friends and creative collaborators, Joe’s perspective was never been further from that of Springsteen than was with American Babylon. A fierce statement of defiance that said that the artist was not “going quietly into that good night,” a quarter-century afterwards, Grushecky is still creating intelligent, insightful, and hard rocking music with albums like 2004’s True Companion, 2013’s Somewhere East of Eden, and 2018’s More Yesterdays Than Tomorrows, to name but three of many. It was with American Babylon, however, that Grushecky gave voice to society’s ills and purged his inner demons with a raucous rock ‘n’ roll soundtrack. It’s a bona fide classic, and the rare “anniversary” reissue that lives up to its promise. Grade: A+ (Cleveland International Records, reissued October 29th, 2021)
Buy the CD on Amazon: Joe Grushecky & the Houserockers’ American Babylon

Also on That Devil Music:
Joe Grushecky & the Houserockers’ More Yesterdays Than Tomorrows CD review
Joe Grushecky & the Houserockers’ True Companion CD review
Joe Grushecky & the Houserockers’ American Babylon Live CD review

On Rock & Roll Globe:
Have A Good Time…But Get Out Alive! Turns 40

Friday, May 20, 2022

Archive Review: Vivian Campbell’s Two Sides of If (2005)

Vivian Campbell’s Two Sides of If
Following in the footsteps of Gary Moore and other hard rock heroes, Vivian Campbell rediscovers the magic of the blues with his solo debut, Two Sides of If. Although his credentials as a guitarist are second-to-none – Campbell punched the clock with both Ronnie James Dio and David Coverdale’s Whitesnake before joining Def Leppard for that band’s drive to the top of the charts – the Irish axeman hasn’t, shall we say, shown much propensity towards the blues in the past. Blooze-rock fans need not worry, however, because Campbell shows a casual mastery of both the form and the spirit of the blues on Two Sides of If.

Vivian Campbell’s Two Sides of If

Putting together a top-notch band that includes multi-talented drummer Terry Bozzio and harp player Michael Fell, Campbell proceeds to step in front of the microphone and knock out a set of smoky, fiery blues standards and modern blues-rock covers that sidesteps any questions of authenticity. Campbell is a world-class guitarist and quite up to the task of reimaging these songs to showcase his skills. Def Leppard fans expecting metallic shredding may be sorely disappointed, Campbell choosing instead to display a range and tone he never needed to pull out of the toolkit with his previous bands.

The guitarist’s vocals are especially surprising, Campbell proving quite adept at conveying the subtlety and passion of the blues, his understated approach bringing a tacit emotion to the material. He’s not Coverdale or Dio, but he ain’t ‘alf bad either, you know... Two Sides of If includes red-hot covers of classic Willie Dixon and Robert Johnson (naturally) tunes, most notably Dixon’s “I Ain’t Superstitious,” redone as a riff-driven punch-up that would do Kim Simmonds proud, and “Come On In My Kitchen,” Johnson’s country blues spiced up with just the right amount of humility and scorching guitar licks. Campbell tries his hand at some timeless soul, as well, hitting up Booker T’s Stax hit “The Hunter” and Lowell Fulson’s “Reconsider Baby” while also paying homage to Fleetwood Mac and Z.Z. Top with well-chosen covers.

The Reverend’s Bottom Line

The highlight of Two Sides of If, though, may well be Campbell’s respectful reading of fellow countryman Rory Gallagher’s “Calling Card.” Performed with Van Morrison cool and jazzy undertones, the song frames perfectly both Gallagher’s songwriting skills and Campbell’s impressive six-string technique. It’s just one fine moment among many on a solid debut from Vivian Campbell, and one well worth checking out for any fan of old-school British blooze-rock. (Sanctuary Records, released 2005)

Review originally published by Alt.Culture.Guide™ zine, 2005

Buy the CD from Amazon: Vivian Campbell’s Two Sides of If

Archive Review: Anthrax’s Alive 2 (2005)

Anthrax’s Alive 2 (2005)
Anthrax reunited, with major league shouter Joey Belladonna at the helm and the twin six-string attack dogs of Scott Ian and Daniel Spitz at his back – what more do you need to know? Drummer Charlie Benante is still in the chair, pounding the hell out of the kit and barb-wire bassist Frank Bello has been brought back into the fold, effectively recreating one of the hardest-hitting and most lethal stage gangs in the annals of heavy metal.

Anthrax’s Alive 2 (2005)

Alive 2 (2005) captures the band’s reunion performance from June 2005 at the Starland Ballroom in Sayreville, New Jersey. Roaring through a set of classic, earth-scorching Anthrax tunes like “Caught In A Mosh,” “Among the Living,” “Antisocial,” and fan favorite “I Am the Law” (from the Judge Dread movie), the band sounds as raw, jagged and dangerous as they did 20 years ago. Ian is a phenomenal string-shredder, but when playing off Spitz’s manic leads, the two throw down the gauntlet for younger bands to try and follow.

Belladonna’s classical NWOBM vocals separate him from the typical ‘80s-era hardcore honker, bringing a grand dignity to the affair as he rages from a low growl to a high-flying shriek within the space of a heartbeat. Bello and Benante are, quite simply, one of the best rhythm sections in metal, providing a solid, if explosive, backbone to the material. Taken altogether, the band has lost few steps through the years, Anthrax still quite capable of peeling the plaster from your walls and leaving your eardrums in tatters.

The Reverend’s Bottom Line

Alive 2 (2005) is that rarity, a live album from a veteran band that doesn’t sound as if it was performed in automatic pilot. The members of Anthrax are clearly having fun with this reunion, and it shows in the grooves, Alive 2 (2005) benefiting from the band’s uncompromising heavy metal stance and remarkable talent for raising hell and creating chaos on stage. (Sanctuary Records, 2005)

Review originally published by Alt.Culture.Guide™ zine, 2005

Friday, May 13, 2022

Archive Review: Dave & Phil Alvin’s Common Ground (2014)

Dave & Phil Alvin’s Common Ground
It would be pretty safe to say that without legendary bluesman Big Bill Broonzy, the sound of Chicago blues – and all of blues music, really – would be vastly different than it is today. A country bluesman with roots in Mississippi and Arkansas, Broonzy served his country during World War I. When he returned home he found that farming no longer held any interest and, relocating to Chicago, he started a life in music. Broonzy would become a popular bluesman, talented songwriter and guitarist, and a prolific recording artist as well as an important catalyst in the evolution of the country blues sound into big city urban blues during the 1940s and ‘50s.

Through the years, Broonzy performed in country blues, ragtime, hokum, R&B, and folk blues styles and wrote for, performed and recorded with talents like Memphis Minnie, John Lee “Sonny Boy” Williamson, and Tampa Red. His kindness was legendary, and he helped Southern immigrants to the Windy City like Muddy Waters get a toehold in the city, arranging gigs and recording sessions for the newcomers. It is Broonzy’s influence on blues and rock music that is most keenly felt, however, not just on Chicago bluesmen like Waters and Buddy Guy, but also on young rock guitarists like Eric Clapton, Rory Gallagher, and Ron Wood of the Rolling Stones, among many others.    

Dave & Phil Alvin’s Common Ground

Two young musicians that Broonzy influenced were brothers Dave and Phil Alvin. Growing up in Downey, California in the 1960s, the brothers shared a love of music. As Dave Alvin remembers in the liner notes to Common Ground, Broonzy’s music was a revelatory discovery for the two teenagers, an artist that remains their musical touchstone to this day. The brothers would go on to form the Blasters in 1980, the band recording a handful of critically-acclaimed albums featuring a high-octane blend of roots-rock, rockabilly, blues, and R&B that found an appreciative audience on the Southern California punk rock scene. The band called it quits by the end of the decade, though, with Dave Alvin launching an acclaimed solo career in much the same musical vein as that of his former band that is still winning the artist accolades today.   

Part of the reason for the break-up of the Blasters was the notoriously combative relationship between the two brothers. As Dave has been quoted as saying, “we argue sometimes, but we never argue about Big Bill Broonzy.” It is the brothers’ shared love of the revered blues legend that brought them back together in the studio for the first time in nearly 24 years to record Common Ground. Credited to Dave Alvin and Phil Alvin, and subtitled “Play and Sing The Songs of Big Bill Broonzy,” Common Ground is exactly that – a heartfelt tribute to Broonzy by a couple of musicians that felt his influence at an early age.   

The Songs of Big Bill Broonzy

Broonzy was a gifted songwriter, so there was no dearth of material for the brothers to choose from, and it’s a credit to Broonzy’s talents that the Alvin’s duplicate only two songs from Muddy Waters’ tribute to his mentor, the 1960s album Sings Big Bill Broonzy. The album opens with the jaunty “All By Myself,” an upbeat ragtime-styled romp that features the brothers’ shared vocals and Dave’s elegant National steel guitar. If not for the modern recording technique, the performance might be mistaken for an old slab o’ 78rpm shellac, the brothers playing it straight and having a ball with their careful interpretation of the song. “I Feel So Good” differs from the aforementioned Waters’ rendition, skewing closer to Broonzy’s courtesy of Gene Taylor’s light-fingered piano-play and drummer Lisa Pankratz’s lively percussion. It’s a swinging tune, and tailor-made for Phil’s yelping vocals.

In contrast to the pair of openers, “Southern Flood Blues” rocks like a juke-joint Saturday night, with Dave’s wiry electric guitar licks and ominous vocals punctuated by Phil’s mournful blasts of harp. It’s a fine performance, the song’s disturbing lyrical tale emphasized by the strength of the instrumentation. It’s probably the furthest the brothers get from Broonzy’s original intent, sounding more like a long-lost Blasters’ outtake, but it’s also entirely appropriate. “Big Bill’s Blues,” one of Broonzy’s first recorded sides, returns to a country blues sound, the performance fueled by Phil’s wonderful heartbreak vocals and Taylor’s lonesome piano runs.

Key To The Highway

Since first recording the song in 1941, Broonzy’s “Key To the Highway” has become a blues standard, recorded not only by blues legends like Waters, Little Walter, and John Lee Hooker but also by rockers like Clapton’s Derek and the Dominos and the Rolling Stones. The Alvins’ reading of “Key To the Highway” is a country-styled blues tune capturing the spirit of the original with Dave’s engaging National steel play and Phil’s friendly harp and acoustic guitar. The jazz-flecked “Tomorrow” is another one of those songs perfectly suited to Phil’s soulful twang, and his vocals here swing on one of Broonzy’s better R&B tunes. Taylor’s hands dance across the keyboard and bassist Brad Fordham holds a steady rhythm while Dave lays down a hearty solo that fits in perfectly with the other instrumentation.

“Just A Dream” is the other Broonzy tune recorded in tribute by Muddy Waters, and the brothers Alvin hew closely to Waters’ electric Chicago blues styled romp here. Phil’s vocals are lower and slower, perfectly capturing the moment as Taylor does his best Otis Spann imitation, Dave layers in some fine, fuzzy fretwork, and Phil adds dashes of energetic James Cotton-styled harmonica. The brothers share vocals again on the underrated Broonzy gem “Stuff They Call Money,” Taylor’s piano tinkling low in the mix beneath the hearty rhythmic play of Fordham’s bass and Pankratz’s drums, with blasts of icy harp underlining the song’s insightful social commentary. The instrumental “Saturday Night Rub” is a perfect showcase for the brothers’ intertwined guitarplay – Dave on the steel, Phil on acoustic – while the Fordham/Pankratz rhythm section rides along. It’s a joyous performance and an appropriate choice to close out the album.  

The Reverend’s Bottom Line

What’s not to like about Common Ground? It’s the first album from Dave and Phil Alvin together in two decades, and for an old Blasters fan such as myself, that’s like manna from heaven. Plus, these are Big Bill Broonzy songs, so it’s hard to go wrong. The brothers are obviously familiar with the material, and not only bring a reverence to their performances, but also a playfulness that is completely in the spirit of the late blues legend.

There are tribute albums where it’s obvious the performers are going through the motions for a payday, the publicity, or the cache of being associated with a project considered “hip.” Then there are great tribute albums where the contributors truly love the artist and songs they’re honoring and they juice up their performances with passion and energy…Common Ground is one of those kind of albums, a tribute that truly lets the music do the talking. Get it! (Yep Roc Records, released June 3, 2014)

Buy the CD from Amazon: Dave & Phil Alvin’s Common Ground

Archive Review: Dion’s Tank Full of Blues (2012)

Dion’s Tank Full of Blues
Over the course of a career that has spanned an amazing seven decades, Dion DiMucci has worked his way across a full spectrum of American musical styles. From the pop, rock, R&B, and doo-wop of his 1950s-era hits to the folk-and-gospel leanings of his ‘60s commercial comeback – as well as the soulful electric-blues that he’s explored during the new millennium – Dion has done it all and done it well.

Dion’s Tank Full of Blues

Spurred on by conversations with music journalist Dave Marsh, who stated that Dion is the only first-generation rocker of the 1950s who remains artistically relevant today, and with his wife Susan daring him to live up to Marsh’s claim, DiMucci dove headfirst into a creative frenzy that resulted in Tank Full of Blues. The last leg of a blues-n-roots trilogy that began with 2005’s Grammy® Award-winning Bronx In Blue and continued through 2007’s Son of Skip James, Dion’s Tank Full of Blues is a stunning musical statement delivered by an artist who has lived and breathed the blues for decades.

Unlike those aforementioned albums, the former of which was a collection of classic blues covers, the latter mixing a handful of originals amidst sturdy old warhorses, Tank Full of Blues offers up a slate of mostly original material, the result of a divinely-inspired songwriting jag that provided Dion with a wealth of material. The title track is a vintage-sounding throwback to the 1950s with a Chicago blues lilt and finely-crafted fretwork, while “I Read It (In the Rolling Stone)” evinces a swamp-blues menace with appropriately dark-hued guitar paired with topical lyrics.

Dion’s “Ride’s Blues” is his tribute to Delta blues legend Robert Johnson, the lyrics weaving an enchanting tale while the sparse, atmospheric, guitar-driven soundtrack adds steel-coiled muscle above a steady pounding drumbeat. The “Two Train” medley welds Muddy Waters’ “Still A Fool” with Johnson’s “Ramblin’ On My Mind,” evoking a spirit of wanderlust with a wonderful, nuanced performance. The stream-of-consciousness “Bronx Poem” is a talking-blues tone-poem with elegant fretwork and insightful, autobiographical lyrics.  

The Reverend’s Bottom Line

Throughout Tank Full of Blues, Dion’s powerful vocals are matched by his fierce, unbridled guitarplay and an uncanny songwriting sense. Those who dismiss Dion as yesterday’s news display their own ignorance, as Tank Full of Blues is one of the most soulful blues albums that you’ll hear this year…or any other. (Blue Horizon Records, released November 14th, 2011)

Review originally published by Blues Revue magazine, 2012

Buy the CD from Amazon: Dion’s Tank Full of Blues

Friday, May 6, 2022

Archive Review: Homemade Jamz Blues Band’s Mississippi Hill Country (2012)

Homemade Jamz Blues Band’s Mississippi Hill Country
Mississippi Hill Country, the fourth Homemade Jamz Blues Band album, was financed by the band’s fans through a Kickstarter fundraiser (the Reverend among those who donated). From all indications, the money was well-spent, as the production preserves the raw spirit of the band’s performances but never sounds cheap or underserved. The biggest difference between Mississippi Hill Country and the band’s third album, 2010’s self-produced The Game, is in the growth shown by the Perry siblings as artists, frontman Ryan Perry in particular.

Homemade Jamz Blues Band’s Mississippi Hill Country

It is Ryan’s songwriting on Mississippi Hill Country that stands out; six years into an acclaimed career, the oldest Perry sibling is still only 22 years old. But it sounds like he’s been listening (heavily) to his father’s record collection, Mississippi Hill Country displaying a wide range of styles and influences, from 1960s era blues-rock and ‘70s soul to the 1990s sounds of R.L. Burnside and Junior Kimbrough. Throughout it all, the band evinces a strong identity, the material relying more on subtlety and talent than on the novelty that often plagued their youthful performances. Ryan, Kyle, and Taya have grown up, and they sound better for it.

The album-opening “Buy One Get One Free” is a blustery blues-rocker reminiscent of Michael Bloomfield and Electric Flag while “Times Are Changing” offers a timeless romantic plea that matches Ryan’s soulful vocals with a throwback vibe that reminds of Curtis Mayfield. The hypnotic “Red Eye Flight” is the sort of menacing juke-joint jam that the Burnside family built its legend on, full of circular guitar riffs, heavy throbbing bass lines, and steady rhythmic percussion, a spirit also shown by the title track, a full-tilt tribute to those Hill Country legends that captures the essence of this hardscrabble region.

The Reverend’s Bottom Line

Mississippi Hill Country closes with a bit of magic, the acoustic “Love Doctor” catching lightning in a bottle as Ryan calls on the influence of Delta greats like Charley Patton and Son House to bang out a haunting, powerful bit of old fashioned black cat moan. I tell ya, the blues seldom gets better than this… (self-produced, released 2012)

Review originally published by Blues Music magazine, 2012