MID-CENTURY MODERN Al Basile (Sweetspot Records) *** ½
This is the 3rd Al Basile disc to join my collection. Produced by and including Al’s old Roomful of Blues band mate Duke Robillard on guitar, Mid-Century Modern is a snappy, jazzy treat.
“I wrote these songs over a 14 day period last summer right after finishing the Knickerbocker All Stars project, where we did a lot of classic R&B and blues material that featured horn solos” Al says. “That got me to thinking about the repertoire we played in Roomful Of Blues in the seventies and how much fun it was to solo over those grooves. I thought I’d write a bunch of songs that I could stretch out on the horn a little more than I usually do. It was like writing a bunch of stories about old friends, and using my horn as well as my voice to tell them” he concludes.
These days the main soloist on most blues tracks is the guitar player (which I like) but it’s kinda cool to hear the cornet take center stage once again. “Brass players were known to play blues all the time in the early days of jazz and blues” Basile notes. “My horn sound is another voice to me. I’m a baritone, I don’t sing that high, and I play a big bore cornet, (so) I don’t play that high either.” All of which give Mid-Century Modern a kind of sixties feel, which really works for listeners around my age.
Robillard’s production is, as always, impeccable- clean and maybe a bit too well-mannered for some, music sounding like it was made by guys wearing suits and ties, but what’s wrong with a little snazz once in a while? As I listen to Mid-Century Modern yet again in my basement music room, it feels like it might work really well for a road trip. Now that I’m unemployed (for the moment), might be time to check that out.
ESSENTIALS: Carry These Blues, Keep Your Love- Where’s My Money?, Night Crossing
BLUES HEART ATTACK Jeremiah Johnson Band (Connor Ray Music) **** +
It’s the latest effort (6th I think) from this St. Louis-based rockin’ blues outfit. It feels like there’s some country in here too, no doubt thanks to Johnson spending a decade in Texas. Regardless, it’s a winning mix that grabs you by the ears from the first notes. And yes, he is named after the title character from Robert Redford’s 1972 movie of the same name.
“I really wanted Blues Heart Attack to be a roller coaster of emotions that reflect the life, heart and soul of a blue-collar bluesman” Jeremiah says. “With songs that I started writing over ten years ago and others that were basically born in the recording studio, I truly feel this record closely represents my band past, present and future.” Along with drummer Benet Schaeffer and bassist Jeff Girardier Johnson is stirring up quite a party here, with special guests Nathen Hershey (B3, Wurlitzer & piano), Frank Bauer (sax, backing vocals) and Tom ‘Papa’ Ray adding some harmonica, it’s a delicious combo.
Johnson is no ‘Johnny-come-lately’ either. He began learning guitar at the age of 6 (about 50 years before me!) drawing inspiration from his rich St. Louis blues heritage along with players like Alvin Lee, Clapton and Hank Williams Jr., though I’d say he reminds me most of Eric Clapton with perhaps a bit rougher edge. He combined that with a Texas blues sound during that decade in the Lone star State (starting in 1999), going on to win the St. Louis Blues Society International Blues Challenge in 2011, making it to the semi-finals in Memphis. He even shot a documentary in 2014, Ride The Blues with Australian director, so yeah- he’s one busy guitar player!
Produced by the band along with Jason McIntire, Blues Heart Attack is a crisp, muscular sounding blues record with a healthy dose of nasty in the grooves. This isn’t really the kind of record to throw on and mellow to, it’s what you put on when you want to party or get some shit done. Good stuff.
ESSENTIALS: Mind Reader, Sun Shine Through, Here We Go Again
NO GLASS SHOES Ally Venable Band (Connor Ray) ****
Here is the debut album from this 17 year old Houston-based singer/guitarist, and boy is it a smoker. I’ve only heard these 8 songs, but I feel confident in predicting a long and very bright future for this young lady.
This group is already racking up the awards and critical accolades- they came up winners at the East Texas Music Awards last year for blues band, and Ally one for female guitarist of the year. Let’s put age and gender aside for the moment- she can flat-out wail, no matter what your frame of reference is. “I think No Glass Shoes really shows the musicianship of my band as well as the guest artists” she says. “My goal for this album is to really connect with people and let them know its okay to feel a certain way.”
Venable is already a solid singer and will only get better as she becomes more seasoned- I’m just glad somebody didn’t force her to become some kind of country tart! Lest we forget, the band also includes lead guitarist/ keyboard player Bobby Wallace, bassist Zach Terry is a real groove master, and self taught drummer Elijah Ownings lays down a steady backbeat with some real wing to it.
No Glass Shoes was produced by Steve Krase and Rock Romano, sounds bright and tight, but could’ve used a little more sawdust and dirt if you know what I mean. Most of these songs are originals, while they cover the Junior Wells classic Messin’ With The Kid and Bonnie Raitt’s Love Me Like A Man, and Ally composed new music to go with Alberta Hunter’s Downhearted Blues. This is a rock solid debut, worthy of serious attention.
ESSENTIALS: Messin’ With The Kid, Trainwreck, Downhearted Blues
I’M GONNA TELL YOU SOMETHIN’ THAT I KNOW David “Honeyboy” Edwards (Pro Sho Bidness) ***** +
Living, breathing blues history is what this CD/DVD package is. David “Honeyboy” Edwards was the last of the great Mississippi Delta bluesman and this, recorded and filmed in 2010 (the year before he died at age 96), is a treasure no blues fan can pass up.
Honeyboy was really there at ground zero for the blues, his life intertwined with all the legends including Robert Johnson, Sonny Boy Williamson, Sunnyland Slim, Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters, to name but a few. In early 2010 he was given the Grammys’ Lifetime Achievement Award, And in September of that year, returned to LA to perform at The G Spot. It turned out to be the last time he would be filmed and recorded, and that’s what we have here in our hands- a hot little piece of blues history.
The sound quality of I’m Gonna Tell You… isn’t pristine, more like a good quality boot, and it gives you the feeling of being there in the audience as Honeyboy coaxed the blues from his red Les Paul guitar with Jeff Dale & The South Woodlawners swinging and grooving behind him. Lots of great blues classics in these 10 tracks, songs you’ve heard by other people, but in Honeyboy Edwards’ hands, you really get the feeling that you’re in touch with the source of the blues.
There is also a DVD included of the performance, and it’s wonderful… but worth the price of admission to this entire set is the DVD bonus track Honeyboy Tells You Something That He Knows. At the end of the performance one camera was left rolling, and it captured Honeyboy giving advice to musicians, telling stories of his life, vivid recollections of the night Robert Johnson died (he was there) and more. Whew.
I’m Gonna Tell You Something That I Know is a rare glimpse into the history of the blues- the songs we all know played by one of the masters and originators of this music, and the DVD mentioned in the paragraph before this one. This should be considered essential listening and viewing for anyone that’s even thought about the blues. Amazing, and priceless.
ESSENTIALS: The DVD Bonus Track, That’s Alright, Goin’ Down Slow, Catfish Blues
COLD OUTSIDE Bill Johnson (Independent) *****
A new Bill Johnson album is always cause for celebration and this is his 4th, joining Work Songs and Still Blue on my CD shelves. Cold Outside is EXTREMELY cool stuff.
The pitfall for many a blues album is that many of the songs can sound the same- but that is most certainly not the case with Bill Johnson’s new record. So many different styles of blues amongst these 11 cuts, from the jump blues of Nine Dollar Bill to the slow burning, lonesome My Natural Ability. My old boss Brant Zwicker, host of At The Crossroads, ain’t lying when he says “Cold Outside may well be Bill Johnson’s most complete work to date.” I fell for Bill’s brand of the blues when he performed live for the AGM of The Victoria Blues Society a few years ago, snagged one of his CD’s at the gig, and have been a fan ever since.
Cold Outside was produced by Bill along with drummer Joby Baker at Baker’s studio in Victoria, BC, Baker also being known for working with Mae Moore and Cowboy Junkies. I particularly enjoy the spatial arrangement of the instruments-guitar left, piano right, drums underneath it all… it feels live and natural, as if you were in the studio listening to them and watching as they play. No two songs are alike, and they range from downhearted blues to urgent, passionate fare, and the light-hearted jump blues of the aforementioned Nine Dollar Bill.
What also sets Cold Outside apart as well is the stunning musicianship, particularly Bill Johnson’s inspired guitar work. I get a vicarious thrill from hearing a roomful of musicians pulling in the same direction, and The Bill Johnson Band works so well together it’s a delight to hear then play. This disc is a variety of blues styles (with a couple of streaks of country) played with the utter confidence of masters of their instruments- it’s isn’t just a good album, it’s a great one.
ESSENTIALS: Angry Guitar, Nine Dollar Bill, Cold Outside
ZALO’S BLUES Gonzalo Bergara (Independent) *****+
The latest record for one of the most respected Gypsy jazz guitarists in the world is an energetic, electric blues/ rock affair that will knock you flat on your ass.
As a guitarist Bergara is spellbinding, coming across like a cross between Vince Gill and Stevie Ray. This trio, based in Argentina, has been playing together for a couple of decades, and it shows in how effortlessly they sit in each other’s pockets. Zalo’s Blues is a mixture of instrumental and vocal cuts in various blues styles like Texas guitar shuffles and some western swing, touching on Hendrix-like heaviosity. All of the songs are originals, save for a blazing take on Jimmy Reed’s You Don’t Have To Go.
In the trio format there’s nowhere to hide, and with these three players- Bergara on guitar and vocals, Mariano D’Andrea on bass and Maximiliano Bergara (his brother, I assume) on drums, there’s no need to. Zalo’s Blues is a real breath of fresh air- great sounding, extremely well played on all fronts, grooves like crazy, all driven by phenomenal guitar playing. And perhaps most important of all, it sounds like they had fun doing it.
Don’t let the ‘gypsy jazz’ label put you off, Gonzalo Bergara is one of the best, most emotive guitar players I have ever heard, better than most of the big rock and blues guys you might be able to name. Sure he can play incredibly fast, but he never sacrifices emotion of the sake of showing off- whether he’s relaxing into a groove or peeling off an incredible solo (and there are many), each choice he makes packs a wallop that will make your inner guitar nerd smile Zalo’s Blues is one of my very favourite albums of the year.
ESSENTIALS: Drawback, Whoosh, Ines
JAWBREAKER! Dawn Tyler Watson (independent) *****
After a couple of tasty acoustic records with her duo partner Paul Deslauriers, Montreal’s Queen Of The Blues comes roaring with her second proper solo record, a scorching gospel blues set that will shake your very foundations.
The focus of Jawbreaker! is evident from the first line of the first song Can’t Nobody; “Just one bite from the apple and you realize/ there ain’t no going back now”. This new collection of songs is soul, R&B, blues and gospel, with an emphasis on the ‘gospel’, as so much blues music in general can say. As Dawn explores the influences that brought her to where she is today, she sings with such blistering passion that we have no choice but to sit up and take notice.
Interesting choice for album title, meant to convey the power of the music contained within to be sure. Produced by Frankie Thiffault, Jawbreaker! feels like a real game changer, one of those records that simply cannot be ignored. The sound is tough and aggressive, thanks to Watson’s band and a phalanx of special guests who helped shape this into what it has become. From boot stompin’ floor fillers like Son Of A Gun to the sexy, elastic blues of Tootsie Roll Blues that follows it on the CD, to the firey gospel of the opening cut Can’t Nobody, there really is something for everyone on this disc.
Aside from the gospel underpinnings, this is also a raunchy, bawdy album, like the rubbery stand-up bass grooves of the aforementioned Tootsie Roll Blues, and the staccato delivery of Smoked Meat, where the lyrics seem to describe a trip to Burger King- but we know what she’s really talking about. Jawbreaker! is a very diverse record in terms of sound, intent and subject matter, a great listen on purely musical and emotional levels too. Dawn Tyler Watson is one of Canada’s great blues voices, and this disc should be her ticket to the big leagues and a permanent spot no the international stage.
ESSENTIALS: Can’t Nobody, Tootsie Roll Blues, Smoked Meat, Greenbacks