Friday, September 29, 2023

Blues Bites: Bart Walker, Duke Robillard, Eric Gales (2013)

Bart Walker's Waiting On Daylight
Reviews originally published as a “Blues Bites” column in May 2013 for the About Blues website...

Bart Walker – Waiting On Daylight
Nashville bluesman Bart Walker made quite a splash at the 2012 International Blues Challenge, winning the coveted “Gibson Guitarist Award” while he and his band took second place in the band category. On the strength of that performance in Memphis, along with the accolades heaped on Who I Am, his self-produced debut album, Walker was offered a deal with respected blues label Ruf Records, which released Waiting On Daylight in early March 2013.

I’d say that label head Thomas Ruf got a steal of a deal, because Waiting On Daylight fulfills all the promise Walker showed while competing at the IBC, the album offering up eleven accomplished and mature performances that showcase the guitarist’s amazing six-string skills and soulful vocal growl, which is somewhat of a mix of Gregg Allman, Ronnie Van Zandt, and Van Morrison. The material on Waiting On Daylight is an invigorating blend of Southern rock, Memphis soul, swamp-blues, and twangy roots-rock that evokes memories of Duane Allman and John Campbell.

Although tunes like the mid-tempo, power-blues of “Black Clouds” sit comfortably within the realm of Stevie Ray Vaughan, Walker is no mere SRV clone, displaying a wide stylistic range and fluid technique, whether on the self-effacing and humorous “Took It Like A Man,” the best song that Lynyrd Skynrd never made, or on the blues-rock wildfire “Gotta Be You,” which layers locomotive percussion beneath Walker’s anguished vocals and tortured fretwork. The title track is a heartfelt ballad that evokes Jeff Healey with both its emotional vocals and nuanced guitarplay.

A red-hot cover of the Allman Brothers’ gem “Whippin Post” breathes new life and fresh musical ideas into the old warhorse while retaining the song’s original spirit, Walker’s arrangement infusing the blues-drenched original with jazzy flourishes and soulful piano licks that capably support his hypnotizing solos. Bart Walker is one of the up-and-coming talents in the blues world, Waiting On Daylight a fine introduction to the artist’s talents and an impressive major league debut. Grade: A- (Ruf Records, released March 12, 2013)

Duke Robillard Band's Independently Blue
Duke Robillard Band – Independently Blue

Guitarist Duke Robillard is the “Old Faithful” of the blues these days, a jack of all trades and an undeniable master of them all. He releases a new album nearly every year like clockwork, recorded, presumably, when he’s not off touring or in the studio producing another artist’s new CD. Really, Duke is a serious workaholic, or maybe he’s just hopelessly bitten by the muse of the blues, but either way a new Robillard album is a thing of pure joy, and Independently Blue is no exception.

The follow-up to Low Down and Tore Up, the guitarist’s 2011 covers album, Independently Blue offers up mostly new material, penned either by Robillard or his former Roomful of Blues bandmate Al Basile, with a pair of songs written by guest guitarist “Monster” Mike Welch. The resulting slate of songs is a blues lover’s smorgasbord of styles and sounds, beginning with the album’s opening “I Wouldn’t-a Done That.” With Robillard’s gruff vocals and subtle fretwork, Bruce Bear’s tinkling piano, and a shuffling beat, the song is a delightful throwback to the Chicago blues of the 1950s.

The rest of Independently Blue romps across a varied blues landscape, from Welch’s rocking instrumental “Stapled To The Chicken’s Back,” which pits the two talented fretburners against each other above a reckless groove, to the 1920s-era New Orleans blues-jazz vamp “Patrol Wagon Blues,” which features Bears’ piano and Doug Woolverton’s period-perfect trumpet sounding Red Allen’s spry original. The swinging “Laurene” gives off an energetic rockabilly vibe while Robillard’s original instrumental “Strollin With Lowell and BB” does an impressive job of capturing the spirit of both R&B legend Lowell Fulsom and the great guitarist B.B. King.”       

In the hands of a less talented musician, bandleader, and arranger, the wide swath of material displayed on Independently Blue would come out of the oven a tasteless mess of notes. Robillard is a traditionalist, however, a skilled instrumental stylist with a deep knowledge of, and respect for the history of the blues. As such, the performances throughout Independently Blue are inspired, wired, and more entertaining than just about any blues album you’ll hear this year. Grade: A+ (Stony Plain Records, released April 9, 2013)

Eric Gales' Live
Eric Gales – Live

The career of Memphis-born and raised guitarist Eric Gales has long suffered from the inevitable Jimi Hendrix comparisons, especially following the release of 2001’s otherwise excellent That’s What I Am album under the aegis of the Experience Hendrix family trust. Unfair or not, Gales has tried to live down the Hendrix albatross ever since, a situation not helped a lick by a series of psychedelic-drenched early 2000s album releases like Crystal Vision and Psychedelic Underground for Mike Varney’s Blues Bureau label.

Truth is, Eric Gales is a bluesman born and bred – his musician grandfather played with folks like Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf, and his older brothers Eugene and Manuel (a/k/a Little Jimmy King) began teaching young Eric the basics of blues guitar when he was a mere four years old. By the time he was 11, Eric was winning music competitions with his talents, and he signed his first major label deal at the tender age of 15, releasing The Eric Gales Band, his 1991 debut, with brother Eugene on bass. A number of albums have since followed, and if you listen in between the lines, you’ll hear elements of Albert King’s Delta dirt and B.B. King’s jazzier influences mixed with the inevitable Hendrix licks and more than a little of Gales’ own original vision.      

It’s surprising that, with ten albums under his belt, Gales hadn’t previously released a live disc, a situation rectified with Blues Boulevard’s two-disc CD/DVD set Live. A twelve-song performance of original material penned by Gales and producer Varney, recorded at an unspecified venue, Gales leads his trio of bassist Steve Evans and Aaron Haggerty through their paces. The result is extremely satisfying, Gales leaning on the bluesier side of his talents, songs like “Freedom From My Demons” displaying both the personalized nature of his songwriting but also a fluid guitar technique that jumps from smooth jazz to roadhouse blues in a heartbeat.
The 1960s-styled “Me And My Guitar” hits hard and fast with a rapidfire rhythm and a rockabilly heartbeat, while “Wings of Rock and Roll” is a heady ballad that shows so much heart and soul in its shifting stylistic cues that it shakes off the Hendrix mimicry for once and for all. Live closes out with the muscular blues-rock rager “Retribution,” which allows Gales to flex like his guitar heroes with a seriously badass performance and plenty of high-flying guitar. All told, Gales’ Live is a great showcase for the often-underrated guitarist’s immense skills, and this special two-disc set offers a DVD of the performance along with the audio CD. Grade: B+ (Blues Boulevard Records, released October 2, 2012)

The View On Pop Culture: Stone Sour, Seether, Joel McIver's 'Nu-Metal' book (2002)

Stone Sour's Stone Sour

Your humble columnist has been known to ridicule the horrible marketing term “nu-metal,” both in these pages and elsewhere. There’s really not much “nu” about the tunes cranked out by bands like System of A Down, Slipknot, or Static X – it’s all a hybrid of punk and hard rock with a touch of hardcore, thrash and extreme metal thrown in for good measure. That being said, there are still some righteous jams being kicked out by some of the young bands making waves on the charts these days.

Slipknot is one of the most popular bands in the current nu-metal universe, the band building an enormously loyal following behind a pair of albums – 1999’s Slipknot and Iowa, from 2001. Both releases were huge multi-platinum hits, the Des Moines, Iowa band delivering hard-and-fast, uncompromising music the likes of which rock fans had never before heard. With an important slot in the 1999 Ozzfest tour, Slipknot celebrated Halloween every night on stage, adorned in matching industrial gray jumpsuits and individual scary masks.

Before they joined Slipknot in 1995, vocalist Corey Taylor and guitarist James Root had a band known as Stone Sour. During a break in Slipknot’s constant touring schedule, the pair got together with former bandmates and recorded their self-titled debut, Stone Sour (Roadrunner Records). Described as a “kinder, gentler” version of Slipknot, you would be hard pressed to convince anyone of this notion. The staccato machine-guitar riff that kicks off the album opening “Get Inside” slices as deep as anything you’ll find in the Slipknot milieu. Much of the disc straddles a stylistic fence, influences as disparate as Nirvana and Metallica informing Stone Sour’s sound.

Taylor is a reasonably flexible vocalist, capable of moving from a hard-rocking baritone to a blood-curdling scream within the space of a heartbeat, but it is Root’s chainsaw guitar that dominates the proceedings. Matching Taylor’s vocals beat for beat with great dexterity and a forcefulness that most guitarists can only dream of; Root blazes new trails for his metal brethren to follow. Taylor’s lyrics consist of typically obtuse molten poetry, decipherable only by enthusiastic teens, but apart from Slipknot’s rigid framework, he takes his vocals into new and impressive territory. With songs as muscular as “Cold Reader” or the 200-mph maniacal binge “Idle Hands,” who cares what the vocalist is throwing out – it’s the raw power that counts, and Stone Sour has it in abundance. Extra credit awarded for Taylor’s rant “Omega” that closes the disc, as inspired a bit of madness as you’re likely to hear from a chart-topping artist these days.

Murderdolls' Beyond the Valley of the Murderdolls
Stone Sour looks like any other gang of grunge-blasters hanging out on your typical USA street corner. Murderdolls, on the other hand, have a spooky, semi-Goth Marilyn Manson vibe going on with their appearance. The tunes on Beyond the Valley of the Murderdolls (Roadrunner Records) are sheer metal-tinged Glam rock, kind of like a revved-up and drunkenly manic Guns ‘N Roses. Featuring Joey Jordison from Slipknot and Tripp Eisen from Static X on six-string, Murderdolls is a deranged bunch of buggers, with song titles and subject matter unsuitable for a family paper.

The hype surrounding Murderdolls may say “nu-metal” but the sound is strictly Hollywood circa 1986, a highly-amped blend of punk, thrash and traditional metal thrown into a blender with the switch thrown on high. Vocalist Wednesday 13 sounds like he gargles with barbed wire and battery acid and the band’s twin guitars cut like a scalpel while the rhythm section stings like a nest of angry and very large hornets. Much of the material here is exaggerated and delivered tongue in cheek, kind of like the Misfits or Rob Zombie. Songs like “Dressed To Depress” or the cinematic dreams of “Dead In Hollywood” provide a potent lyrical and music elixir certain to cure your blues and peel the plaster from your walls.

Seether's Disclaimer
brings a South African perspective to the ever-fluid hard rock scene. Led by vocalist/songwriter Shaun Morgan, the band’s debut Disclaimer (Wind-Up Records) is an interesting blend of musical and lyrical influences, Morgan’s tales of alienation exhibiting Kurt Cobain-levels of angst and frustration. Musically, Seether treads closer to the Seattle sound of the early nineties than either of the two aforementioned bands, throwing in subtle instrumental flourishes that their flannel-clad ancestors never dreamed of. Morgan is a decent vocalist, with a deep voice that resonates with emotion and fluctuates between pain and pleasure much like Nirvana’s Cobain. He is still growing as a songwriter, but his material is still heads above much of what passes for intelligence in hard rock these days, and you have to love a guy who names his publishing company after an Alice Cooper song. Did I mention that Seether make a heck of a lot of noise for three guys? This is a band worth keeping an eye on...

For readers confused by this nu-metal stuff, music journalist Joel McIver has written a pretty good book on the subject. His Nu-Metal (Omnibus Books) calls itself “the essential reference book for 21st century metal fans” and for once, the hype isn’t far off the mark. McIver offers an informative look at the stylistic godfathers of nu-metal, bands like Faith No More, Nirvana and Jane’s Addiction that influenced a generation of artists to follow. He touches upon important scenemakers as well, folks like producer Ross Robinson and the Roadrunner Records label, but it is McIver’s “A – Z Guide,” presenting biographies of over a 100 bands, that makes the book work. McIver’s work is an invaluable guide to an every-growing and changing nu-metal music scene and a great sourcebook for rock fans. (View From The Hill, October 2002)

Friday, September 22, 2023

Blues Bites: Granville 'Stick' McGhee, Roosevelt Sykes (2013)

Granville “Stick” McGhee's Vol. 1 (1947-1951)
Reviews originally published as a “Blues Bites” column in March 2013 for the About Blues website...

Granville “Stick” McGhee – Vol. 1 (1947-1951)
Granville “Stick” McGhee was the younger brother of folk-bluesman Brownie McGhee and while not as well known as his legendary sibling, his contributions to popular music remain arguably as influential as Brownie’s have come to be seen. “Stick” McGhee’s main claim to fame is the raucous “Drinkin’ Wine Spo-Dee-O-Dee,” originally waxed in 1947 for the independent Harlem Records label. The regional hit came to the attention of Ahmet Ertegun who, in 1949, was trying to get his fledgling Atlantic Records off the ground. Ertegun tracked down McGhee through his brother, and put them both in the studio with pianist Wilbur “Big Chief” Ellis to re-record the song with more dynamics and instrumentation. The Atlantic version of “Drinkin’ Wine Spo-Dee-O-Dee” would hit #2 on the R&B chart and break the Top 30 on the pop chart, providing both McGhee and Atlantic Records with a big hit.

As shown by Document Records’ Vol. 1 (1947-1951), which offers the “complete issued recordings in chronological order,” there was a lot more to Granville McGhee than his proto-rock ‘n’ roll novelty hit. McGhee was a skilled guitarist and a jazzy crooner who was flexible in performing a number of styles, from the early jump-blues of “Tall Pretty Woman (Blues)” with its wiry guitar licks and modified boogie piano, to the more traditional, Delta-tinged country-styled “Lonesome Road Blues,” and most everything in between. “Blue and Brokenhearted,” from 1949, is an early example of the quickly-evolving Chicago blues style, reminiscent of Big Bill Broonzy, while “Southern Menu” is a bluesy shuffle with blasts of horn that pre-dates 1950s-era R&B.

McGhee’s other enduring song was “One Monkey Don’t Stop No Show,” a 1972 hit for R&B group Honey Cone but has since been covered by a number of blues, rock, and R&B artists like Bobby Rush and Joe Tex. McGhee’s original is a rollicking, bluesy, rocking affair with flying piano keys, hot guitar licks, and blaring horns that drive the rhythm. McGhee’s “Wee Wee Hours” is another long-lost gem, a smoldering bluesy torch song that cries for rediscovery and a cover by an appropriately skilled contemporary crooner. Grade: B+ (Document Records, released January 8th, 2013)

Granville “Stick” McGhee's Vol. 2 (1951-1960)
Granville “Stick” McGhee – Vol. 2 (1951-1960)

McGhee’s Vol. 2 (1951-1960) picks up where the first volume leaves off, the talented singer and guitarist delivering one final red-hot single for Atlantic Records, 1951’s “Meet You In the Morning” featuring brother Brownie on vocals with “Stick” on shouted harmonies and guitar. The song itself is an early rocker with plenty of Jerry Lee Lewis-styled piano-pounding and a rowdy chorus that nevertheless sold poorly and resulted in a major step backwards for the artist. McGhee was working as a taxi driver when he recorded a pair or sides for the Essex Records label in Philadelphia, the A-side “My Little Rose” an unremarkable, poorly-recorded song overshadowed by the flip-side’s “No More Reveille,” a mid-tempo tune from Granville’s army days that highlights McGhee’s fluid guitar technique.

The bulk of Vol. 2 (1951-1960) comes from McGhee’s roughly five-year tenure with the notable King Records label in Cincinnati, which resulted in several lively jump-blues records. The storyline of “Whiskey Women and Loaded Dice” is pretty much self-explanatory, the thinly-recorded side nonetheless evincing a sly sense of humor and a playful vocal performance that dances across the R&B horns and rudimentary rhythm while the slow-grinding “Head Happy With Wine” is a swaggering, boozy song about drinking ones blues away. The best stuff on volume two is found among the sides McGhee cut for King in 1955, songs like “Six To Eight” and “Get Your Mind Out of the Gutter” displaying McGhee’s whiskey-worn, gruff vocals.

McGhee’s last recording would be 1960’s obscure “Money Fever” b/w “Sleep In Job,” released by the tiny Herald Records. Probably accompanied by Sonny Terry on harmonica and an unnamed rhythm section, McGhee delivers a pair of sizzling up-tempo rockers with semi-autobiographical lyrics and an infectious rhythm that should have been hits. Disillusioned with his treatment by King Records and the record industry on the whole, McGhee would only venture into the studio once more, to play a session behind his friend Terry. Retiring from music in 1960, sadly McGhee died a year later of cancer. If only for his handful of modest hits, McGhee should be remembered as an R&B trailblazer. Grade: B- (Document Records, released January 8th, 2013)
Roosevelt Sykes' Live At Webster College, St. Louis, 1974
Roosevelt Sykes – “Live” At Webster College, St. Louis, 1974
The contributions of boogie-woogie pianist Roosevelt Sykes, a/k/a/ “The Honeydripper,” are often overshadowed by better-known students of his style like Pinetop Perkins and Otis Spann, but there’s no denying the influence the big man had on the evolution and use of the piano in blues music. Originally released as a limited-edition vinyl record back in 1988, Document’s “Live” At Webster College, St. Louis, 1974 captures the legendary pianist performing a raucous set in front of an enthusiastic young audience, Sykes banging away on the 88s and delivering upbeat readings of classic tunes like “St. James Infirmary Blues,” “On The Sunny Side of the Street,” and “Night Time Is the Right Time,” mixing up blues and jazz and boogie-woogie to the delight of the crowd.

Sykes injects a fair amount of humor into the performance, introducing the songs with stories from his 50+ years in the business, but the real key to Sykes’ longevity was his enormous love of life and playing music, which is readily apparent in his performance of “44 Blues.” His first hit song (from 1929) and now a standard of piano blues, Sykes’ fingers fly across the keys with undiminished elegance, his vocals drenched in emotion that is only bolstered by the mournful vibe of the instrumentation. That lively take on “44 Blues,” combined with Sykes’ energetic performance of “Pine Top’s Boogie Woogie,” his fingers dancing across the keyboard with joyful abandon, prove why Roosevelt Sykes remains a major influence on blues artists to this day. Grade: B+ (Document Records, released July 10th, 2012)

The View On Pop Culture: Trent Gardner's Explorers Club, David Jacobs-Strain, Andrew Vachss (2002)

Explorers Club's Raising the Mammoth

The brainchild of musician/producer Trent Gardner of the band Magellan, his Explorers Club project gathers together the best and brightest from the progressive rock and metal genres to share ideas and create some daring, adventuresome music. Raising the Mammoth (Magna Carta Records) is the second Explorers Club album and the pedigree of the assembled players includes members of Kansas (Kerry Livgren and Steve Walsh), Dream Theater (John Myung and James LaBrie), Megadeth (Marty Friedman), and Frank Zappa’s band (Terry Bozzio). With talent like this on board, it’s no wonder that Explorers Club is often called a “prog-rock supergroup.”

Raising the Mammoth is a collection of musical passages – some small and finely crafted, others longer and more majestic – strung together into a single, cohesive creative theme. The first extended section offers vocals from Gardner, Walsh and LaBrie, thrown into the stream of instrumental chaos created by the attending musicians. The result is quite invigorating; Gardner’s lyrical poetry containing many hidden directions while the musical undercurrent batters your consciousness like white water rapids along the Colorado River. The instrumental second section is grander in scope, the music often swelling to a crescendo before swerving off into unforeseen directions. The first section of Raising the Mammoth seems to work better than the second, with the instrumental interplay among the musicians showing a brighter chemistry and more disciplined performance. Taken as a whole, however, the hour-long recording is a wonderful example of a proud progressive-rock tradition, the torch carried well by Gardner and his friends.

Contrary to what this humble scribe has long believed, you don’t have to be old to sing the blues (tho’ I would submit that it certainly doesn’t hurt any). Extraordinary guitarist David Jacobs-Strain first performed onstage at the Oregon Country Fair at the tender age of eleven and was named as a faculty member of the Port Townsend Country Blues Workshop in 1999 while still in high school. Jacobs-Strain released his first album before he entered college and Stuck On the Way Back (Northern Blues Music), his sophomore effort, proves that the young blues prodigy has come of age quickly.

David Jacob-Strain's Stuck On the Way Back
Produced by musician Kenny Passarelli, who convinced bluesman Otis Taylor to come out of retirement, Stuck On the Way Back is a magnificent showcase of both Jacobs-Strain’s six-string acumen and his songwriting skills. With sparse musical accompaniment and his stark, powerful guitar playing, the young Jacobs-Strain’s vocals sound as ancient as the music he sings. Original songs like Jacobs-Strain’s apocalyptic “River Was Green” or the discordant “Dark Horse Blues” are terse, muscular affairs with timeless lyrical concerns and strong performances. Covers, such as R.L. Burnside’s classic “Black Mattie” or traditional tunes like “Linin’ Track” are afforded great reverence and excellent delivery. A lyrical collaboration with Taylor, “Black And Blue,” results in a haunting tale of love and betrayal, the music fleshed out by Passarelli’s subtle keyboard work. Unlike a lot of young, white guitarslingers aiming for the late Stevie Ray Vaughan’s crown, David Jacobs-Strain is the real thing, an authentic bluesman with instrumental chops and lyrical maturity the equal of artists twice his age and experience.

Author Andrew Vachss could be considered the literary equivalent of the Delta bluesman. His fictional alter ego, Burke, is the same kind of hustler and street-level survivor that Muddy Waters was in real life while Burke’s adopted “family” is not unlike that which grew up around the Chicago blues giant. Burke, an ex-con, is a city-bred predator whose religion is revenge; his troubled childhood is the stuff that the blues is born of. In Vachss’ novels, Burke is typically getting even with someone, usually over something done to a child (reflecting Vachss’ own work as a lawyer and children’s advocate).

Andrew Vachss
Vachss has written better than a dozen Burke novels to date, but the latest, titled Only Child (Alfred A. Knopf) may be his best riff yet. Forced to leave New York City, Burke has spent the last few years (and couple of novels) hiding out in the Pacific Northwest. Burke slips back into the Big Apple under the shadow of night and reconnects with his family, which includes an Asian martial arts expert, a reclusive scientific genius and a hustling, streetwise philosopher. Low on cash and eschewing his usual cons and hustles as overpopulated with amateurs, Burke goes back to his roots as a “man for hire” and private investigator without papers. Hired by a Mob boss, Burke assembles his crew to hunt down the murderer of the Mobster’s daughter that nobody knew existed.

Vachss has branched out over the last few Burke novels, changing locales and the situations he throws his protagonist into, and he continues to experiment with Only Child, taking crime fiction to new heights. Vachss writes with a gritty realism and street-inspired rhythm that only Elmore Leonard comes close to matching, his Burke a dark avenger and hunter of men that could only exist in the imagination. If you’re looking for fiction a little headier and more headstrong than what exists at the top of the best-seller charts, give Andrew Vachss and Only Child a shot. Chances are you’ll go back to the store for more of Burke… (View From The Hill, September 2002)

Friday, September 15, 2023

Archive Review: Son House’s Field Recordings Vol. 17 (2013)

Son House’s Field Recordings Vol. 17
Delta blues legend Eddie James “Son” House, Jr. had two very distinct musical careers – one during the 1920s and ‘30s when, as a friend and contemporary of Charley Patton’s, he traveled the Southeast as an itinerant bluesman. The other career occurred during the 1960s and ‘70s when, after being “rediscovered,” House was championed as an authentic folk-blues innovator and booked into coffee houses and festivals. In between these two eras, for a few days in 1941 and 1942, lies a third, lesser-recognized aspect of his career. Although the handful of sides House recorded in 1930 for Paramount Records would be deemed commercial failures, they grabbed the attention of music historian Alan Lomax, who recorded House for the Library of Congress during two trips to Mississippi.

Son House’s Field Recordings Vol. 17

As the story has been written, Lomax had travelled to the Stovall Plantation in Mississippi in late August 1941 to record a young musician by the name of McKinley Morganfield, who would later find fame as the great Chicago bluesman Muddy Waters. Fiddle player Henry “Son” Sims, who played with Waters on the Lomax field recordings, had much earlier recorded with Patton and told Lomax where he could find House. Tracking the bluesman down in Robinsonville, where he was driving a tractor on a plantation, Lomax managed to assemble House and his band – including guitarist Willie Brown and harmonica player Leroy Williams – at Clack’s Grocery store in nearby Clack, Mississippi on September 3rd, 1941 for a raw, authentic recording session.

Lomax captured a number of performances on fragile acetate that day, and they’ve thankfully survived history to appear on Document Records’ Field Recordings Vol. 17. Although limited by the primitive recording equipment of the era, as well as the very nature of the field recording, the sonic magicians at Document have cleaned up the sound a good bit so that these performances sound old, but immediate and exciting. Among the high points of this first LOC session is the complete band cranking out a reckless version of “Levee Camp Blues,” House’s guitar battling with Williams’ harp for the lead, his vocals displaying the energy and quivering emotion of his earlier Paramount sides. “Walking Blues” offers up a powerful House vocal performance with some fresh, innovative guitar interplay taking place in the background while “Delta Blues,” featuring just House and Williams, spotlights House’s high-lonesome vocals and considerable six-string skills while William’s crying harp notes provide nice embellishment.  

The Reverend’s Bottom Line

When Lomax returned to Mississippi for a second session with House, he would record the singer alone with his guitar in July 1942. The emphasis here is on House’s unique vocals and influential guitar style, and several tracks stand out as classic slabs o’ Delta blues. The sound on “Depot Blues” is a bit muddy, but the guitarplay is exquisite and House’s vocals incredibly nuanced, and the solo version of “Walking Blues (Death Letter)” is especially haunting, with some interesting vocal phrasing and hypnotic guitar. Son House’s Field Recordings Vol. 17 provides an essential missing link between the legend’s two disparate careers, and documents some mighty fine Delta blues in an authentic setting as well. Grade: A- (Document Records, released August 14th, 2012)

The View On Pop Culture: Dr. John, Etta James, Otis Rush (2002)

Dr. John's The Essential Dr. John

Every summer, a ton of ink is splashed around on newspaper and magazine pages hyping the season’s roving festivals. Through the past few years, Ozzfest, Lollapalooza, the Vans Warped tour and a dozen other here-today, gone-tomorrow traveling minstrel shows are featured in print articles and on TV. What a lot of folks don’t realize, however, is that dozens of annual blues festivals soldier on, unabated, year after year in locales as diverse as Maine, Washington, Pennsylvania, and especially California. These blues festivals may not get as much publicity as the national touring shows do, but they have longevity and tens of thousands of music-loving fans on their side.

On the Labor Day holiday weekend, KKJZ-FM (formerly KLON) will be sponsoring the 23rd annual Long Beach Blues Festival. The radio station, based on the campus of California State University, has been broadcasting jazz and blues programming since 1981 and has lined up a stellar roster of talent for this year’s blues festival. Saturday, August 31st will feature blues guitarists Otis Rush, Robert Cray, and Jeff Healey; soul legends Ben E. King and Arthur Adams; and R&B trailblazers the Ohio Players on the stage. Sunday, September 1st showcases the amazing Etta James, Ike Turner, and New Orleans’ favorite son Dr. John headlining the event along with Tyrone Davis, Mable John and blues axeman Roy Gaines.

As shown by the recently released compilation The Essentials (Elektra Records), Dr. John’s trademark vocal growl and inspired musical blend of R&B, jazz, blues, and rock has served him well through the years. Best known for a smattering of hits such as 1973’s “Right Place, Wrong Time” and his 1989 duet on “Makin’ Whoopee” with Rickie Lee Jones, the music of Dr. John (née Mac Rebennack) has deep roots. Rebennack got his start in the business over forty years ago as a teenage guitarist working with famed New Orleans engineer Cosimo Matassa. As a session player, the future “Night Tripper” backed such local stars as Earl King, Professor Longhair and James “Sugarboy” Crawford, whose “Iko Iko” Rebennack recorded in 1972.

This early experience shows on songs such as the soulful rave-up “(Everybody Wanna Get Rich) Rite Away,” the raucous “Tipitina” or the smoky classic “In A Sentimental Mood.” Dr. John is a flamboyant and masterful stage presence and, some say, an acquired taste. He is one of the few links to the regional soul and R&B stars of the fifties and sixties, however, and one of the few talents who can draw together such disparate strains of music into one entertaining performance.

Etta James' Burning Down the House
There’s not much that can be said about Etta James that hasn’t already been said during the R&B diva’s fifty-year career. James is simply one of the most magnificent blues and soul vocalists in the genre, with a charismatic stage presence that has made her a top draw in clubs and on the festival circuit for decades. Backed by the top-notch “Roots Band” that includes guitarist Josh Sklair and keyboardist David K. Matthews, James’ new Burnin’ Down the House (Private Music) captures a strong December 2001 performance at the House of Blues in Hollywood.

James runs through a red hot and smoking set that includes such crowd favorites as the Willie Dixon classic “I Just Want To Make Love To You” and the Isaac Hayes/David Porter Stax label gem “Something’s Got A Hold On Me.” James includes some of her better-known tunes such as the 1961 R&B hit “At Last,” the 1967 Muscle Shoals classic “Tell Mama,” and the timeless ballad “I’d Rather Go Blind.” Forget about the vacuous pop divas that are dominating the radio airwaves, Etta James is the real deal, a talent of unparalleled genius capable of belting out both hard-rocking blues and mournful, passionate soul ballads. With no disrespect meant to any of the new breed R&B vocalists, fans of talents like Jill Scott or India.Arie should get a copy of Etta James’ Burnin’ Down the House and see how it’s really done.

Otis Rush's The Essential Otis Rush
To blues aficionados, legendary guitarist Otis Rush is considered one of the founding fathers of the “West Side” style of Chicago blues. To fans uninterested in such scholarly minutiae, Rush is simply one of the hottest guitarslingers representing the Chicago blues scene, an underrated talent suffering from his own inconsistencies and often overshadowed by giants such as Muddy Waters, Buddy Guy, and even the lesser-known six-string wizard Magic Sam. Released a couple of years ago, The Essential Otis Rush (Fuel 2000 Records) is a wonderful collection of Rush’s studio work for R&B label Cobra Records circa 1956-1958, where the young bluesman built his legacy.

Working with noted producer, songwriter and producer Willie Dixon, the guitarist ripped out such powerful blues hits as “I Can’t Quit You Baby,” “My Love Will Never Die” and “Keep On Loving Me Baby” for Cobra. The Essential Otis Rush also includes some scorching lesser tracks, though, such as the down-and-dirty “Groaning the Blues” and the big-band stompdown “Three Times A Fool.” The collection also includes alternate takes for several of the hit songs, and features such future blues and R&B legends as “Big” Walter Horton and Ike Turner sitting in on the tracks. Rush would go on to record for a number of different companies, including Chicago’s Chess and Delmark labels, but he would never equal the performances and passion poured into these tracks recorded at Eli Toscano’s low-rent Cobra Records studio. One of the last surviving legends of the fabled fifties Chicago blues era, Otis Rush continues to amaze audiences with his distinctive guitar style and powerful vocals…catch him live while you can!
(View From The Hill, September 2002)

Friday, September 8, 2023

Archive Review: Craig Chaquico’s Fire Red Moon (2012)

Craig Chaquico’s Fire Red Moon
Guitarist Craig Chaquico was a mere teenager when he first climbed aboard the Jefferson Starship as a passenger during the mid-1970s, but by the dawn of the 1980s he was sitting on the helm, helping guide the pop-rock phenomena to the upper reaches of the charts. Chaquico had musical tastes much loftier than his day job required, however, and his solo records evince a love of (and skill at playing) jazz and blues styles that were seldom utilized on songs like “Sara” or “We Built This City,” regardless of their overwhelming commercial success.

Chaquico has been a somewhat prolific solo artist these past few years, plying a jazz-inflected instrumental sound that typically falls on the Adult Contemporary side of the fence, his most recent album, 2009’s Follow the Sun, kind of a “smooth jazz” breakthrough yielding a minor hit with the Kenny G composition “Songbird.” Considering his background, the guitarist would seem an ill fit with the blues ‘n’ roots mainstay Blind Pig Records, but here he is with Fire Red Moon, Chaquico’s debut for the label and a decent enough effort to start with.

Craig Chaquico’s Fire Red Moon

First, the bad news – Rolf Hartley, who sings the bulk of the non-instrumental tracks here, may be a longtime friend of the guitarist, but he’s just not that great a voice. For example, on Chaquico’s “Devil’s Daughter,” a bluesy tune that cries out for a dirty, gritty vocal instead offers up Hartley’s lightweight, Don Henley-styled croon, making the song sound like an outtake from the Eagles’ Hotel California. He has little presence on any of the songs that he appears on, and his vocals on Robert Johnson’s masterpiece “Crossroads” are lackluster and overwrought to the point of almost overshadowing some of the excellent fretwork that Chaquico is laying down in the background. The best part of the performance here definitely belongs to Chaquico, who takes Eric Clapton’s original blueprint for the song and pumps it full of life and vigor in spite of Hartley’s duff vocals.

Much better is the effort of singer Noah Hunt – Kenny Wayne Shepherd’s longtime frontman – who guests on Chaquico’s original “Lie To Me” and brings a bluesy, emotional gravitas to the performance that Hartley sorely lacks. Next time around, Chaquico should rope Hunt into the studio for a few more tunes. Another guest vocalist, Eric E. Golbach, makes what appears to be his big-league debut on “Bad Woman” and it isn’t half-bad, Golbach and his gravelly vocals displaying a real sense of heartbreak on the lyrics, the performance bolstered by Chaquico’s melancholy guitarplay dancing in the background.

As for the good news about Fire Red Moon, the album offers several fine showcases for the guitarist’s underrated skills, an instrumental take on Muddy Waters’ “Rollin’ and Tumblin’“ perfectly capturing the song’s freewheeling locomotive vibe, while the album’s title track mixes blues and jazz together like B.B. King, displaying great tone and texture in equal and entertaining measures. The hauntingly beautiful “Blue On Blue” is a gentler, more ethereal sort of “Little Wing,” i.e. Jimi Hendrix channeled through Stevie Ray Vaughan and filtered through Ronnie Montrose before emerging from the fingertips of Craig Chaquico with his own unique flourishes.

The Reverend’s Bottom Line

While Fire Red Moon isn’t as bluesy (or even blues-rock) as many of us may like, Chaquico is an exceptional musician who, should he decide to walk further down this path (maybe with Hunt in tow), could have a bright future with this thing we call the blues. Grade: B- (Blind Pig Records, released October 16, 2012)

The View On Pop Culture: Red Hot Chili Peppers, Weather Report, Brian Gladstone (2002)

Red Hot Chili Peppers' By the Way

Never a band to allow grass to grow beneath their feet when they could be mowing it down with funky rhythms and staccato guitar riffs, the Red Hot Chili Peppers may well be the quintessential Los Angeles rockers. They kick off their recently released By the Way (Warner Bros.) with the booming title track. Anthony Kiedis’ voice is honed to a fine instrument from years of experience, mixing old-school, Sinatra-styled crooning with a staggering, free-style rapped chorus laid on top of Flea’s (Michael Balzary) superfly bass lines.

Songs like “Cabron” or “The Zephyr Song” illustrate John Frusciante’s incredible guitar prowess, the six-string maestro quite capable of shredding the strings if the moment calls for it, but also able to weave intricate, beautiful instrumental passages behind Kiedis’ lyrics. Because the Chili Peppers have a world-class musician in bassist Flea, the band’s material tends to lean towards a more rhythm-heavy groove while drummer Chad Smith, hidden in the back, is as solid a beatmaster as a band could ever want. The Chili Peppers’ wonderful chemistry, the enthusiasm of the players and the member’s shared experiences (and tragedies) make for exciting music, By the Way as good a rock ‘n’ roll album as you’re going to find this year.

The blues and jazz are America’s two greatest contributions to the shared vocabulary of music, both genres forever intertwined stylistically and both created by African-American musicians in the early part of the twentieth century. Much like the blues, jazz has many different faces, from the big-band swing of Duke Elllington to the hepcat cool of Dave Brubeck and the manic free improvisation of Miles Davis. Jazz is perfectly structured in that it lends itself to both individual achievement and group collaboration. No other jazz band in the history of the genre has had more influence on the style than Weather Report, however. The recent reissue of the groundbreaking 1976 album Black Market (Legacy Recordings), the band’s sixth studio effort, perfectly illustrates the impact that Weather Report would have not only on the world of jazz but on rock ‘n’ roll as well.

Weather Report's Black Market
Formed in 1970 by keyboardist Joe Zawinul and saxman Wayne Shorter, Weather Report would experience an ever-changing roster of talent through the fifteen-year lifespan of the band, yet always produced a cohesive sound backed by Zawinul’s unwavering vision. Black Market is interesting in that the album represents a transitional period for the band, the great Jaco Pastorious replacing Alphonso Johnson in the line-up (tho’ both play on various tracks), and no fewer than three drummers contributing to the album. Zawinul and Shorter lead the pack, the seven songs composed for Black Market incorporating elements of classic improvisational jazz and electronic experimentation, with undertones of funk and rock and the early signs of Zawinul’s flirtation with world music rhythms and forms. The resulting performances are near flawless, amazing in their scope and invigorating in their execution. Black Market would set the stage for the following year’s Heavy Weather, the band’s best-selling album and one that would see Pastorious taking on a greater creative role in the band. For music lovers whose knowledge of jazz doesn’t extend beyond Kenny G, pick up a copy of Weather Report’s Black Market and get a taste of the real thing...

Folk music is a tricky thing, the format not particularly beloved of radio programmers and label A&R men. Sure, stars like Jewel or Sheryl Crow might pay lip service to their folk roots, but an honest-to-goodness modern day folkie is as estranged from popular music as pro wrestling is from subtlety. All of which makes the gradual upward career arc of folk singer/songwriter Brian Gladstone all the more impressive (and encouraging). The Toronto-based musician recorded his first album, One Step Beyond the Dirt with equipment bought on the cheap at local music stores. Taking the punk rock DIY ethic to the extreme, Gladstone bought a computer, designed his own promotional materials and began the chore of marketing himself to both potential listeners and the industry. He achieved a modicum of radio airplay, sold a few CDs and eventually had that first album – originally a basement demo – picked up for European distribution.

Brian Gladstone's Psychedelic Pholk Songs
Gladstone’s second album, the excellent Psychedelic Pholk Songs (Back To The Dirt) successfully beats the sophomore curse, delivering a wonderful collection of literate and often-humorous songs. “Asphalt Cowboy” leads off the album, a delightfully tongue-in-cheek rave-up that sums up the hopes and aspirations of every artist who ever made their way to Nashville in search of fame and fortune as a country singer. The song throws away better lines than most Music City songsmiths will pen this year (I particularly like “It’s so hard to get paid/Working at my special trade/I like to sleep all day and then/I listen to CDs”). “Mega City Mel” is a sprightly tale accompanied by a ragtime rhythm, “A Father’s Lullaby” Gladstone’s lovely and loving ode to his three children.

Gladstone is an imaginative and intuitive songwriter and a natural storyteller, unrestrained by conventional limitations. A fair-to-middling’ guitar picker, Gladstone has a friendly voice and an infectious musical personality. Your humble scribe doesn’t know a whole lot about folk music, but know what I like and I like Psychedelic Pholk Songs more every time I listen to it. Psychedelic Pholk Songs is a real breath of fresh air, an honest album by a real musician. You won’t find any Pro Tools enhancement or studio polish on Psychedelic Pholk Songs, Brian Gladstone’s music beautiful in its flaws and flawless in its sincerity. (View From The Hill, August 2002)

Friday, September 1, 2023

Archive Review: Black Country Communion's Afterglow (2012)

The classic rock “supergroup” Black Country Communion was always destined to break bigger in the U.K. and across Europe than in the United States – less trend-mongering, more respect for music traditions, and so on – but that hasn’t stopped the band from steamrolling itself to notoriety and a modicum of stateside success. On the eve of the release of BCC’s Afterglow, their third studio effort in as many years, apparent discord had begun to surface as singer, songwriter, and bassist Glenn Hughes (Trapeze, Deep Purple) fretted publically over the future of the band in light of guitarist Joe Bonamassa’s crushing, never-ending solo roadwork. Hughes wants to be part of a touring band like ye olde Purple and other monsters of the ‘70s, while Bonamassa is satisfied with a few BCC side dates to compliment his busy schedule.

Black Country Communion’s Afterglow

Soap opera drama aside, it’s quite obvious from the eleven jams on Afterglow that something is amiss with the band’s world-beating sound. Don’t get me wrong – Hughes and Bonamassa, drummer Jason Bonham, and keyboardist Derek Sherinian, along with producer and unofficial “fifth man” Kevin “Caveman” Shirley, are still one of the biggest-sounding, blustery, and bad-ass outfits on the rock ‘n’ roll highway today. But Hughes shouldered the lion’s share of the songwriting chores for this go-around while Bonamassa was traveling, and it shows in the final product. While Hughes may be an accomplished and skilled wordsmith in his own right, what made BCC so special in the first place was the creative tension between Hughes’ hard rock, soul, and funk tendencies and Bonamassa’s blues-infused rock ‘n’ roll fretburning.

As a result, Afterglow finds the material a slight bit fatigued, down a notch, perhaps, from the first two ground-breaking, earth-shaking albums. Not that you could tell from the all-in, full-blast instrumental assault here, BCC still delivering hurricane-strength thrills and chills for the listener who appreciates 1970s-era Sturm und Drang. There’s always been an air of Jimmy Page and Led Zeppelin in the BCC sound, mainly through Bonamassa’s wiry fretwork and Bonham’s propulsive percussion and Afterglow offers up plenty of the musical chemistry that made the outfit special in the first place, songs like “Big Train,” with its staccato rhythmic intro and subsequent fluid groove atop which Hughes’ vocals soar godlike astride Bonamassa’s subtle six-string flourishes and Sherinian’s underlying keyboards. “Confessor” neatly ties a bow on a the classic rock decade, evoking memories of Deep Purple, Judas Priest, Scorpions, and even a bit of former Hughes bandmate David Coverdale’s Whitesnake.

The Reverend’s Bottom Line

The lone Bonamassa vocal here, on the growling, howling “Cry Freedom,” mixes up some taut, Joe Walsh-styled guitar-wrangling (more James Gang than solo) with a measure of six-string stomp ‘n’ stammer reminiscent of Dust Bowl, while the album-closing “Crawl” is a sly bit of Zeppelinesque blues-funk with larger-than-life instrumentation and an overall impact like a sledge hammer to your medulla oblongata. Overall, with Afterglow, Black Country Communion delivers almost everything you could want from the band on a silver platter. Considering their haste at music-making and the fractured pace of the individual members’ careers, however, maybe they should take 2013 off and come raging back in 2014 with new fire and commitment (and Joe, take a day off every now and then, will ya?!). Grade: B (J&R Adventures, released October 30, 2012)

The View On Pop Culture: The Cells, Rose Tattoo, Disarray, 'Streetwise' DVD (2002)

The Cells' We Can Replace You

The Cells’ web site describes the band’s music as “high decibel post-pop and loud, loud guitars,” about as apt a label as this critic could ever create for the Chicago rockers. We Can Replace You (Orange Recordings), the band’s enormous debut album, features frontman Cory Hance’s distinctive nasal vocal style and guitarist Pat McIntyre’s snarling axework. Drummer Randy Payne and former Figdish bassist Rick Ness add massive, crashing rhythms to the songs, every tune on We Can Replace You a perfectly manufactured three-to-four minute slice of pure rock ‘n’ roll. “Silver Cloud” explores the perils of fame, fictional and otherwise while “Vinyl” offers the suggestion of automotive therapy for the angry and heartbroken. Hance’s bratty vocals rise above McIntyre’s tireless fretwork, spitting out the lyrics of “Say Hello” as the song spirals into a cacophony of feedback before evolving into “What You Did.” A radio-friendly pop song with a memorable riff and relentless wall-of-sound instrumentation, “What You Did” is a fine example of the Cells’ craft. Every song on We Can Replace You is an unpolished gem, the Cells a band with so much life and energy that they sound loud even when they’re being quiet.

Australia’s Rose Tattoo are a rowdy bunch o’ fellows, old school beat messiahs that only know two ways to rock ‘n’ roll: hard and loud. The band has been plying its trade for better than two decades now, instruments turned up past ten and lead singer “Angry” Anderson assaulting his audience with gravel-voiced, full-throttle vocals. Virtual deities both “Down Under” and “Over There” in Europe, Rose Tattoo have never caught on stateside beyond a dedicated gang o’ headbangers. The band’s latest album, Pain (Steamhammer Records), offers everything that any hard rock fan could want. With precise guitar licks sharper than a surgeon’s scalpel, courtesy of Pete Wells and Rockin’ Rob Riley, and driving rhythms built, brick by brick, by bassist Steve King and drummer Paul DeMarco, Pain rocks like a house afire.

Rose Tattoo's Pain
The band’s “Union Man” is a raucous rave-up about the merits of organized labor while “I Can’t Help It If I’m Lucky” is an old-fashioned, sappy love song paired with high-voltage instrumentation. “One More Drink With the Boys” is exactly what you’d expect from the title, a barroom ballad delivered with plenty o’ blood, sweat and tears while “Illustrated Man” stands as the band’s theme song. A biker anthem with hard-as-nails vocals and screaming guitar riffs, “Illustrated Men” is a perfect example of “100% rock ‘n’ roll,” Rose Tattoo’s statement of purpose and the band’s guiding light through all these years. Somewhere along the way, hard rock went astray, but Rose Tattoo, with Pain, still play with the fire in the belly and unabashed passion of lifers.

So-called “nu metal” bands are a dime a dozen these days. The phrase itself sounds like a hip marketing ploy, an artificial label used as an epitaph by some critics and as a creative pigeonhole by others. Some bands, such as Mushroomhead or System of A Down, manage to break through the barriers of lame marketing and poor writing on the strength of their talent. Disarray, on the other hand, use their latest album In the Face of the Enemy (Eclipse Records) to literally annihilate the “nu metal” barrier. This three-piece leviathan crushes industry mannequins and mindless critics beneath a ferocious aural onslaught, driving their artistic enemies to either madness or oblivion much like their musical forbears, metal mavens Gwar, did a decade ago.

Disarray's In The Face of the Enemy
In the Face of the Enemy
is a high-speed car wreck of a heavy metal album, produced with a wonderful lack of subtlety by Gwar’s Oderus Urungus (Dave Brockie). With their instruments set on dismember, Disarray proceeds to slice and dice forty-five minutes of soundwaves with brute force and extreme insensitivity. Tunes like “To This Day” and “Path of No Regret” display a certain alienation and “might is right” Darwinian philosophy, the angry young men of Disarray reflecting the hopes and fears of the band’s growing teen audience. Frontman Chuck Bonnett’s rough-hewn vocals sound like he blistered his pipes with battery acid at an early age. His guitar talks even louder, tho’, firing off staccato riffs and mixing classic crash-n-bash metal with thrash and hardcore punk, a heady sonic brew supported with devilish glee by bassist Vance Wright and drummer Dave Peridore. Forget about all those “nu metal” poseurs tiptoeing through Linkin Park – Disarray are the “nu” face of metal, LOUD, hard, and as unforgiving as a fist.

Now that he is a TV sitcom dad, the new millennium’s Ozzie Nelson, Mr. & Mrs. Osbourne’s annual Ozzfest summer tour is, without a doubt, poised on the brink of primetime success. For a look back at previous Ozzfest shows, check out the first issue of Streetwise DVD music magazine, available at FYE Music stores nationwide or online at This cheap-o priced, value-packed videozine is divided into sections, the first offering feature stories like “Ozzfest Takes On the World” and “Marilyn Manson Sounds Off.” The “Main Stage” features music videos from rockers like Drowning Pool, Weezer and an ultra-cool, Clockwork Orange-inspired vid by Rob Zombie. The “Side Stage” showcases videos by up-and-comers like 3rd Strike, Otep, and the super-foxy Lennon. A “Back Stage” section provides video stories and interview segments with folks like Bad Religion and Glassjaw. The production is top-notch and the graphics are pretty nifty, although you do have to sit through a certain amount of advertising to see the content. With plans to publish quarterly, the maniacs at Go Street have created a winner in their Streetwise DVD magazine. Did I mention that it’s only $5.00 retail? (View From The Hill, August 2002)