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WAY BACK HOME Backtrack Blues Band ( Harpo Records) ****½ Here is the 5th album for these Florida-based blues masters, and it’s exactly what a good time sounds like- spirited and rollicking.Formed by singer/ harp player Sonny Charles and guitarist Kid Royal in 1980, the group is named after a Little Walter instrumental and this is indeed harp-based blues.  “We had lots of fun making this album” Sonny says, “it was a relaxed journey for the band.  Everyone had a great time playing the tunes, and we hope the joy of performing real blues shines through on this record. (It) really captures the tones and energy we were looking for.”Produced by Charles W. Ross and George Harris, Way Back Home has a nice, thick, analog sound, avoiding the brittle sharpness of many modern productions.  6 of the songs are originals and 4 are covers, including a couple of Sonny Boy Williamson II numbers.  ‘Authentic’ is a big word these days when it comes to a lot of things, and as far as the blues go, it doesn’t get any more authentic than Way Back Home.

ESSENTIALS:  Goin’ To Eleuthera, Your Funeral My Trial, Baby Please Don’t Go

MEMPHIS ROCK & SOUL Melissa Etheridge (Stax/ Concord) *** Melissa’s new album is a covers record of some of her favorite Stax/ Volt stuff, featuring songs made famous by BB King, Otis Redding, and more… and it’s very well done.I always have trouble accepting covers albums, and this is no exception.  There is some value here in that it informs us of where Etheridge comes from (partly) as an artist, but it’s not really her ‘voice’.  I’ve been a fan since her first record, of the passion she brings to her own songs- but as cool as some of these classics are, something is lost in the translation.  I’d prefer a disc of original stuff with 2 or 3 Stax tunes sprinkled in, so she’d be in effect saying “This is what I do, and here is some of what brought me to this place”.Production by John Burk and Melissa make for an excellent sounding record, and all of the musicians brought their ‘A’ game.  I really do enjoy it, just not as much as if it had been a set of original material.  Sorry, Melissa.

ESSENTIALS:  Hold On I’m Coming, Rock Me Baby, I’ve Got Dreams To Remember

THE DISTILLERY The Distillery (independent) *** ½ This 3 song e.p. from this Toronto based blues trio is a real charmer, a taster of things to come.The Distillery are Chloe Watkinson, Neil Hendry and Jordan Safer, and they push the edge of blues// soul/ roots to create their own sound.  Influenced by greats like Etta James, Eric Clapton and The Tedeschi Trucks Band, these songs move with a fluid live energy that sweeps you along before you even know what’s happening.  They’re being noticed back east too, with appearances at Tremblant International Blues festival, Lighthouse Blues festival and so many more.  These guys are the real deal, and I heartily suggest you check out their website; www.thedistilleryblues.com

ESSENTIAL:  Note from Nola

CRADLE ROBBER  Stevie J Blues (independent)  *****This is actually a CD single, the first release from the singer/ songwriter/ producer out of Jackson, Mississippi, from his forthcoming album Back To The Blues, and it’s a killer.The son of a pastor, Stevie J has been a professional musician practically his whole life. With roots in gospel and soul, it was really just a matter of time before he turned to the blues.  This track is lively and swingin’ with sax and horn parts n charts that oddly remind me of the Police Squad movies and give it a real uptown feel- sounds like it would’ve been good for the Blues Brothers movie.  If this is any indication of the forthcoming Back To Blues album, which surely it must be, I can’t wait.  As soon as it lands on my desk I’ll give it the once over and let you know.REMEMBER US TO LIFE Regina Spektor (Sire/ Warner) *****I don’t usually dive in on modern pop albums but my son’s fiancée likes Regina so I figured ‘what the hell, check it out’.  Hailed by Rolling Stone as her generation’s Joni Mitchell this, her 7th album, is a delightful surprise.Regina was born in the Soviet Union and began studying classical piano at the age of six, which at least partially explains the melodic sophistication of her songs.  Her music has appeared in several TV shows, perhaps most notably the track You’ve Got Time in the Netflix series Orange Is The New Black.  Recording with producer Leo Abrahams (David Byrne, Brian Eno, Paolo Nutini) at The Village Studios in LA, Remember Us To Life is her first record to feature all newly composed songs, as opposed to picking from stuff written from throughout her career.  Writing during and after her 2014 pregnancy, she says “I made more art and felt more inspired than I had in a long time.”The sound of this disc is delicate but expansive and good Lord does she have a way with words!  It will take me much more than a few passes to fully absorb what’s going on here, but honestly, Remember Us To Life is truly spectacular.

ESSENTIALS:  Bleeding Heart, $mall Bill$, The Light

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