30TH ANNIVERSARY COLUMN WITH, COUNT ‘EM, 20 REVIEWS!

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30TH ANNIVERSARY COLUMN WITH, COUNT ‘EM, 20 REVIEWS!

By John Kereiff.

PASSION Passion (Frontiers) **** ½

This is their self-titled debut, the brainchild of former Night By Night vocalist Lion Ravarez (Daniel Rossall).  As tight as the top skin on a well tuned snare drum and with the melodic muscle of great 80’s/ 90’s hard rock, Passion is great stuff.

Frontiers (an Italian label) have a serious gift for finding bands like this.  While I know nothing of Rosall’s previous band or the other players involved here, it’s impossible not to like what they’re doing together on this one.  Lion played most of the instruments and produced the album, but the band also includes guitarist Chance Vanderlain, bassist Weston James and drummer Bobby Laker.  It all started with a song in 2017 when Rossall got together with members of his former band to have a go at doing something new.  So encouraged was he by the results he kept going until a full album’s worth of material was ready to record. He sent his demos to Frontiers who were immediately interested and signed him up.  Give this a listen and you’ll understand why.

The time seems right for this kind of rock/ metal to make a comeback. If you were weaned on AC/DC and Ratt, I’d bet the rent you’ll dig this.  The riffs are melodic, sleazy, bluesy and propulsive.  As a singer Raverez is like Bon Scott or Marc Storace (Krokus), or Johnny Reidt from Seattle’s New American Shame.  The songs on Passion are basic but not dumb; there’s strength in that simplicity.  Passion doesn’t deal in the ‘weedly-weedly’ speedster shredding that the 80’s & 90’s is remembered for, this is straight ahead 4-on-the-floor rock & roll played with commitment.

This is primal, the kind of music to make you want to shotgun a beer and play air guitar.  To borrow a line from AC/DC, it’s time to ‘ride tonight, to the guitar bite’.  As good as this album is, it’s thrilling to think Passion are just getting started.  Look them up on the label website. www.frontiers.it

KEY CUTS:  Big Game, Intensity, Too Bad For Baby

LIGHTER SIDE OF THE BLUES Val Starr & The Blues Rocket (Sandwich Factory Records) ***

Here’s a slice of California blues for you from Val Starr and her band, The Blues Rocket.  Lighter Side Of The Blues is 13 originals that echo everything from traditional blues to 60’s girl group pop to guitar driven rock & roll.  As Val notes, “it doesn’t have to be heavy to be the blues”…  ain’t that the truth?

Of her California blues she says “it’s a mindset as opposed to a style”. I really try to capture the joy that the blues instills in the hearts of those who love it.”  There is a lot of joy and good times in these tracks- they kick the swinging bar door open with Say Goodbye To The Blues (Like You Mean It) and cross a number of blues genres, tempos and grooves as you wade in deeper.  While my preference is dark ‘n’ dirty stuff- just the way I’m wired- I also know there’s a time and a place for good time blues, and that’s exactly what Lighter Side of The Blues is.

Val & the Blues Rocket (dubbed so by Starr because ‘they send her songs into the stratosphere’) are a 5-piece from Sacramento that plays with nuance and groove.  “Because I enjoy all types of blues, I chose to embrace multiple styles from traditional shuffles to ballads, to New Orleans, country rock and R&B inspired blues” she notes on the inside cover.  Rather than being schizo, this constant movement within the genre make for a good listen.   The band plays pretty straight ahead and as a singer Starr is comfortable within the songs.  She’s no Sass Jordan that’s for sure but has a likeable voice that gets the lyrics across easily.

People that think the blues is all slow, downer music about how “my baby done left me” (my ex-sister in law used to say that) would do well to give Lighter Side Of The Blues a spin.  In the hands of Val Starr & The Blues Rocket the blues are a joyous good time that will melt your cares away. www.valstarrandthebluesrocket.com

KEY CUTS:  If She Can Get A Man (Anyone Can), All Or Nuthin’ Man, 24 Hour Blues

GRAVITAS Dead Kosmonaut (High Roller Records) ****+

An EP in between notwithstanding, this is Dead Kosmonaut’s 2nd album. A combination of traditional, melodic and progressive metal styles, Gravitas is an ambitious record that makes a powerful statement.

In talking about his vision for the band in a recent interview, founder/ bassist Mattias Reinholdsson noted that early metal bands had no restrictions on what their music should be. “These were musicians who had not grown up on metal music as it didn’t exist” he said, “so their take had many different facets and albums had acoustic songs, jazzy songs, bluesy songs, progressive songs.  I want Dead Kosmonaut to be that sort of band, so that when you listen to one of our songs you don’t really know what’s coming next.”  For the most part he succeeds in that regard.

Some cool stuff going on here with these hard rockin’ Swedes as echoes of Heep, Sabbath and Iron Maiden are heard throughout Gravitas.  Overall, it feels like a classic early Queensryche record, reaching for the epic-ness and capturing it more often than not.  Some great guitar playing here but singer Pelle Gustafsson is definitely the centre of attention.  “All over the album are Pelle’s vocals” Mattias notes proudly. “It’s a real tour de force.  I thought he was good on Expect Nothing (the first album), but on this one he’s really found more of his voice. He had loads of ideas for the vocals and we ended up using most of them.”  Some powerful guitar here too from Fredrik Folkare and Par Fransson including tasty, expressive lead work.

Reinholdsson’s vision of a record with many different facets where you’re not entirely sure what to expect from one song to the next definitely holds water here, making Gravitas exciting.  With such a wide variety of influences on display there is something for every metal fan to latch onto.  In a vinyl world the first six songs would make up side one with Dead Kosmonaut I and Dead Kosmonaut II filling side 2 with glorious epicness in a black light kind of way.  The song, written for another project that never saw the light of day, is sludgy, stomping, dark and impressively intense.

Gravitas is the kind of metal album that others aspire to be, with the power to move mountains- impressive. For more info, see their Facebook page.

KEY CUTS:  Black Tongue Tar, Dead Kosmonaut I & II

THE KING OF CRAZY TOWN Bill Blue (Conch Town Music) ******

When I looked at the cover and the title I thought nothing of it but as the old saying goes, don’t judge a book by its cover- this got a spin just because it was on the pile.  Turns out that The King Of Crazy Town has just become one of my favorite blues albums ever.

Bill Blue (his real name) has quite a back story.  He learned his chops on the road playing guitar with Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup and opened for Bonnie Raitt on her first national tour.  After Crudup died in 1974 BB King encouraged Bill to go out on his own, and he toured for a decade.  Tired of the road in the 80’s, he settled down on a houseboat in the Florida Keys and didn’t record for 25 years… until a chance meeting with British record producer Ian Shaw led to 2013’s comeback album Mojolation.

The King Of Crazy Town crackles with energy and life that draws you immediately into the songs.  Most of ‘em were recorded live in one or two takes with the full band, topped by Bill’s gritty vocals, with horns (the Funky In The Middle Horns) recorded in New York.  There are a couple of reviews worth quoting here that sum up how I feel about Crazy Town too; in Blues Blast, Marty Gunther says “this disc roars like a hurricane racing through the Keys… a welcome return for a true road warrior.” For the website Bostonblues.com, A.J. Watchel says “Bill’s growling vocals are perfectly suited for his style; they sound like he eats nails.  When the words come out it sounds like he’s remembering with his heart and that he knows what he’s talking about.”

Lots of albums are padded with filler but not this one; each of the 11 tracks sounds like a standout and that’s pretty rare.  Indianola is his tribute to BB King, Carolina Time is a tribute to Bill’s home state, and Hunker Down is a hurricane season favorite.  No matter where you jump in on King Of Crazy Town you’ll strike gold and that’s the God’s honest truth.  Not just good, not just great- spectacular. Street date is March 6thwww.billblue.online

KEY CUTS:  Indianola, Hunker Down, Enough Blues To Give You The Blues

EMBLAS SAGA Brothers Of Metal (AFM) ***

This is the 2nd album for this 8 member Swedish progressive metal outfit.  Emblas Saga delves into Northern European and Viking tales of valor.  Seems like a niche market, but some of these multi-layered songs can cross boundaries.

Brothers Of Metal are quite ambitious for such a young band and that’s cool.  Of the 8 members, three are vocalists; Joakim Lindback Eriksson, Ylva Eriksson and Mats Nilsson, and there’s almost nothing they can’t cover.  Not sure who’s doing the majority of the lead vocals- my guess would be Joakim- but whoever it is he’s a cross between Udo Direkschneider and Phil Anselmo… powerful and forceful, which matches the lock-step riffing of the guitars and the martial precision of BOM’s rhythm section.  Sounds German you could say, but it seems to be a fairly common trait in European metal in general. Ylva’s vocals, on occasion, lend an Enya-like quality to the more ethereal material- an interesting and likeable contrast.

If you’re not up on Norse mythology, Emblas Saga can help you out.  Mystical entities like Hel, Freya as well as Thor and his magical hammer all come across throughout this particular journey.  For those not into swords, dragons and sorcerers imagery in their music, however, I can see how this might be a tough sell. Though I’ve read the first book I’ve not seen a single episode of “Game Of Thrones”, so I’m coming at this album as an outsider.  The songs are dense, well played and sometimes multilayered when they aren’t grabbing your head and beating it against a wall, almost a physical release.  Want to throw on something loud and scream your guts out?  Emblas Saga can help you out.

Brothers of Metal are talented musicians and this disc with its tales of bravery and martial valor is well done but, like listening to a whole Motorhead album, it’s exhausting.  If early Accept is your deal you’ll pick up on what Emblas Saga is throwing down. www.afmrecords.de

KEY CUTS:  Ride of The Valkyries, Chain Breaker, To The Skies And Beyond

WAITIN’ FOR PAYDAY Sid Whelan (independent) *** ½

With a title like that I expected straight up blues, but Waitin’ For Payday is more than that.  Blues yes- but rock, jazz, soul and country too.  Not necessarily compatible styles you’d think but here, they work well together.

Waitin’ For Payday is the third album for this NYC-based singer and guitarist who studied songwriting with Steve Earle and Chely Wright.  His time as lead guitarist with various World Music acts can be felt in some of the songs too, most notably in The Promise and Legba Ain’t No Devil.  Put this heady mix of styles together and you have a disc of late night music that you won’t want to end.

There’s a jammy quality to Waitin’ For Payday that makes it relaxing and fun to listen to.  The opening song, Nina Simone, sounds something like the dude in the singing asides throughout There’s Something About Mary.  I know it isn’t him but still, the thought made me smile. The combination of excellent musicianship and a relaxed overall vibe is quite refreshing.  All the songs were written by Sid and the album was recorded by Peter Karl.  It isn’t a million dollar production, doesn’t sound like it but that works in the album’s favor, making it somehow even easier to like.

Overall Waitin’ For Payday is light and breezy, particularly on songs like Make Some Time.  Critics had nice things to say about his previous albums Flood Waters Rising (2013) and The Story Of Ike Dupree (2015) and they’ll enjoy the rootsy charm of this one too.  It won’t burn up the charts or sell a zillion copies- almost nobody does these days- but Payday is nice to have around.  Tonight, as my wife is away on Vancouver Island tending to some family business and I’m up by myself, this one is feeling pretty good. www.thesidwhelanband.bandcamp.com

KEY CUTS:  Nina Simone, Midnight In The Country, Legba Ain’t No Devil

HEAVY ROCK RADIO II: EXECUTING THE CLASSICS Jorn (Frontiers) *** ½

One of the best rock singers of all time, Norway’s biggest musical export since A-ha in the 80’s, returns with a 2nd installment of covers of classics of artists and bands that have helped make him the singer he is today.  Jorn Lande offers up an interesting and diverse selection of songs on Heavy Rock Radio II…in some cases he even outdoes the originals.

Covers albums are usually suspect, but Executing The Classics is quite well played and produced.  Here on the 2nd installment he takes on songs by Don Henley, Foreigner, Deep Purple, Peter Gabriel and Dio, to name a few.  “The most important thing was to cover these songs with respect towards the original versions” he says.  “My goal was always to think that the original artist would be honored and find my version relevant.  At the same time my intention was never to try to compete with the original song and artist, but make it a strong alternative version to enjoy.”  On that score, I’d say mission accomplished.

Other songs Jorn takes on here include Quinn The Eskimo, Bryan Adams’ Lonely Nights, Needles and Pins and, a particularly meaningful tune for him, Russ Ballard’s Winning, which was also done by Santana in 1980.  Performances here are muscular and articulate, but fans have come to expect nothing less from Jorn Lande. This is a musician whose career includes over 40 albums of mostly original material, plus he’s recorded great versions of classics by Thin Lizzy, Deep Purple, UFO and many more.  When does he find time to sleep?!?

Heavy Rock Radio II does what a covers album should do; rather than trying to get as close to the originals as possible, it pays tribute to the originals while kicking them up a notch.  As a singer Jorn reminds me of Graham Bonnet, and the 4 piece band rocking hard behind him (keys, drums, bass, guitar) does a bang-up job of putting these songs across.  Purists will likely prefer the originals and I understand that, but if you give Heavy Rock Radio II a spin I think you’ll like these versions too. www.jornlande.com

KEY CUTS:  Bad Attitude (Deep Purple), New York Minute (Don Henley), Night Life (Foreigner)

WORLD OF BROKEN HEARTS Tom “The Suit” Forst (Retro Records) *****

Short but sweet- here is a 5 song E.P. from Forst that goes straight to the heart.  Deep, warm and inviting, World Of Broken Hearts is proof that magic still exists.

A former TV executive and lifelong musician Tom, now 69, started his ‘professional’ career at 57. “This album is a mix of modern blues and Americana with the sounds of electric guitar, textured with a rubber-bridge acoustic, an electric banjo, piano and organ” Tom says.  “My duet with Christine (Ohlman) on Everything Is Falling stands out as a favorite- it’s a song I started writing when I was 17.”  World Of Broken Hearts feels like a record from the early 70’s in a Band or CSNY sort of way in that it mixes rock, folk and blues in an almost hypnotic blend that you can’t help but be drawn to.

Forst’s backing band here includes guitarist Paul Nelson from Johnny Winter’s band, guitarist Ryan Hommel (Amos Lee Band), some tasty blues harp from James Montgomery, and drummer Travis McNabb of Sugarland and Better Than Ezra, but they play like they’ve been together forever. Tom’s style has been described as a cross between Clapton, Gary Clark Jr. and Joe Walsh, and I suppose that tag fits well enough. WOBH is a well produced set with Ethan Isaac at the controls, recorded at Connecticut’s Factory Underground Studios, but feels like it could have been recorded in a cabin way out in the woods with a generator running out back.

World Of Broken Hearts, even at just 5 cuts long, will get under your fingernails, into your heart and very likely stay there- and I’m totally okay with that. www.tomthesuitforst.com

KEY CUTS:  Late Night Train, World Of Broken Hearts

SUITE 226 Serious Black (AFM) *** ½

This German/ American band is unleashing their 4th album upon an unsuspecting world.  Melodic and extremely hard driving, Suite 226 is ruthless riffs meeting catchy melodies driven by a manic rhythm section; not everyone’s cup of tea to be sure, but there will be many who find its brutal charms irresistible.

Suite 226 is a concept album, the narrative of a confused man torn between reality, his dream world, and evil.  He occupies a cold, padded cell- number 226.  In his imagination he is a mighty king living in a castle, surrounded by courtesans and commanding an invincible army.  The blurred lines between fiction and reality make for a harrowing listen, a storyline worthy of the hard as nails yet occasionally beautiful music.

The soaring vocals of Urban Breed over the tough music made by Dominik Sebastian (guitar), Mario Lochert (bass) and Ramy Ali (drums) carry the story well, punishing at times and majestic at others.  These guys come from bands you may be familiar with if you’re into the European power metal scene; Firewind, Rhapsody, Tad Morose, Edenbridge, Vision Of Atlantis and Dreamscape.  I don’t have any information on the production or recording of this disc but the sound is thick and dense, and it sounds great when you crank the stereo up high enough to piss off the neighbors.

Nothing gets me going quite like powerful, insistent riffs, and God knows Suite 226 is loaded with them.  Keyboards are un-credited but a welcome textural element in many of these songs, my guess is that’s Dominik Sebastian’s doing.  The album takes you on a journey between heaven and hell and is a perfect soundtrack for a trip to the place of damnation.  The more familiar you are with the storyline the more sense the tunes make, and the more you’ll enjoy this.  Suite 226 may seem pretentious and overblown to some, but to me it’s one hell of a ride.  To find out more, look for their Facebook page.

KEY CUTS:  Heaven Shall Burn, When The Stars Are Right, We Still Stand Tall

STAND UP! Whitney Shay (Ruf) *****

A heaping helping of funk ‘n’ soul for this powerful singer.  Stand Up! Is rocket fueled R&B with a touch of country sass, and this San Diego based singer has a great voice.

Shay has built her career to this point- a record deal with the legendary German blues label- the old fashioned way, by playing a thousand word of mouth gigs and winning over audiences one at a time.  There’s something to be said for coming up the hard way; it makes her a better singer and gives her music character that it wouldn’t have otherwise.  “When I perform” says Shay, “I want people to dance and be engaged.  To me, music has always been about catharsis, the purging of sad experiences.  If the audience leaves smiling and feeling like they’ve forgotten about their troubles, I’ve done my job.”

Lots of funk and soul in the grooves of Stand Up, like James Brown meets Booker T. The album was tracked in Austin and produced by Kaz Kazanoff, who captured the spirit of good times as they rolled.   Many of the songs here have a political bent, which won’t surprise anyone already familiar with Shay’s work.  “Being a strong, independent woman raised by a single mother and grandmother, many of the songs on this album deal with the themes of equality and female empowerment” she says.  There are personal vignettes here too, of course.  “Someone You Never Got To Know is about not knowing how to mourn the passing of someone that you never got to have a relationship with” she notes. “When I recorded that song I was in tears, and we ended up using that take because of the emotion of it.”  This song speaks loudest to me; I was in my 20’s when both of my parents passed… I wish I’d had more time to get to know them as an adult.

As a singer she reminds me of Irma Thomas, that timbre and soul, and the upbeat tunes are as seductive as the slower ones. Stand Up is great stuff.  Street date: Feb. 21.  www.whitneyshay.com

KEY CUTS:  Someone You Never Got To Know, Change With The Times, Far Apart (Still Close)

A SILENT SOUL SCREAMS LOUD Pyogenesis (AFM) ***

This hard charging metal outfit from Stuttgart has just unleashed the 3rd installment in their steam punk trilogy.  Following 2015’s A Century In The Curse of Time and A Kingdom To Disappear from 2017, A Silent Soul Screams Loud is as dramatic as the title suggests.  Covering topics like Napoleon’s reign, Sigmund Freud, Bohemia, Frankenstein, Darwinism and Marxism, this isn’t exactly a romp in the park.

A Silent Soul Screams Loud, as with previous work, was recorded and produced by the band themselves; Flo V. Schwarz (vocals/ guitar), Thilo Schmidt (guitar), Malte Brauer (bass) and Jan Rathje (drums).  Unless you’re into the German metal scene you won’t recognize the names but together these guys make athletic, melodic metal.  And it’s a good thing they don’t sing “Ooo baby, squeeze my lemon” kind of songs, because with an attack this hard and sharp it would be scary.  I can certainly imagine taking to the highway with the windows down and the volume up on this bad boy.

Pyogenesis and bands like them prove with records like this that metal isn’t just made by knuckle-dragging cavemen.  Yes the music can be brutal but the breakdown in The Capital proves that there’s a lot more going on musically than you might expect.  Couple that with challenging, thought-provoking lyrical ideas and epic storytelling, and Silent Soul is more than ‘just another metal record’.  It can be tough to take everything in on a single listen- impossible, I’d say- so be prepared to spend some time with this.

“We’re not hip or hot, nor for the masses” the band says.  “We do it for ourselves, and we are lucky to be in the position to be heard by a few crazy people from Australia to Canada who like the songs as they are and feel the way we feel.”  Pyogenesis doesn’t make records so they can buy mansions, get blown by super models or have their music sell beer on TV, they make albums like A Silent Soul Screams Loud because it needs to be done.  Nice job, boys. www.pyogenesis.com

KEY CUTS:  The Capital, I Can’t Breathe (prologue & monologue), Modern Prometheus

BELIEVE Albert Cummings (Provogue/Mascot) *****+

Cummings’ new album, due on Valentine’s Day- how appropriate for a blues record- is his first for Provogue, and it’s just what the doctor ordered.  Believe mixes hard blues with rock & roll and country, and the results are… fuckin’ beautiful.

For blues to be hot, sexy and attractive the guitar has to be smokin’ and in Albert’s hands his Stratocaster begs for mercy.  Recorded and produced by Jim Gaines at the legendary Fame studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, Believe sounds and feels like the south.  A lot of great music and shit-hot albums have come out of that particular studio under Gaines’s guidance, and this one is definitely in the same league.

Lots of sass in these grooves, particularly a song like Queen Of Mean, which Albert says was “inspired by people in my life that weren’t particularly nice to me.  It’s not an angry song at all, it’s just a way to poke fun at the situation.”  He describes a ‘Queen Of Mean’ as someone who can “cut an onion and the onion will cry.”  I think we’ve all known a few of those people in our lives… Lord knows Albert Cummings sure has.

I love Albert’s singing voice almost as much as his guitar playing here, he’s an excellent songwriter, and he has a pretty good feel for other people’s songs that would fit him well.  Covers here include blues standards like My Babe and Red Rooster as well as Poco’s Crazy Love, and the album kicks off with a steaming version of the R&B standard Hold On. If I were to describe this album with a single word, it would be “soulful”.  From the singing to the musicianship and the production the disc is chock full of rhythm, funk and soul, making it far more than ‘just another blues record’.  Powerful backup singers, some tasty Hammond B-3 and a dynamic brass section help lift Believe up to the heavens.

Soul-stirring, powerful… that’s Albert Cummings’ new album in a nutshell. www.albertcummings.com

KEY CUTS:  Queen Of Mean, Crazy Love, It’s All Good

SHAKE THE WORLD Black Swan (Frontiers) *****

This is a hard rock band with a pedigree; Robin McAuley on vocals (McAuley Schenker Group), guitarist Reb Beach (Winger, Whitesnake), bassist Jeff Pilson (Foreigner, Dokken) and drummer Matt Starr (Ace Frehley, Mr. Big), and together they are Black Swan.   Shake The World is a delightful slab of hard rock, recalling a time when hair was large and times were good.  I’m way into this.

The term ‘super group’ gets tossed about recklessly, but in the case of Black Swan it actually applies.  Pilson and Starr are a formidable, straight ahead rhythm section, Beach’s guitar playing here is inspired, and McAuley is a great hard rock singer.  Shake The World, tracked at Pilson’s home studio, is worthy of the title; it’s a seismic event.  Just think of all the bands that these guys came from and imagine what it would be like to combine the best of each- that’s what Black Swan delivers in spades.

Shake The World is fresh, heavy and intensely melodic, a very physical album. These guys can really rip it up, but when they downshift into a power ballad like Make It There, you’ll be tempted to take out your Bic lighter and wave it around.  Despite the fun new variable that sex could now kill you I recall the 80’s as being a period of reckless hedonism.  The things we did, we did to music that sounded like this.  I’m not familiar with Starr but the other guys were pretty big during that time, and they’ve brought the sound of melodic passion with them into 2020.  As individual musicians, they sound as good here as they did back in the day if not better.

For a band to really work a lot of pieces have to fall into place to create attention-worthy magic, and that has happened with Black Swan.  Crunchy riffs with plenty of locomotion and great lead work from Beach… a thundering rhythm section… and one of the best singers this side of Robert Plant make Shake The World a must have hard rock adventure. www.frontiers.it/album/5582

KEY CUTS:  The Rock That Rolled Away, Shake The World, Long Road To Nowhere

HEAVENS TO BETSY Jeremiah Johnson (Ruf) *** ¾

If you’re in the mood for some highly charged southern rock, have I got a record for you.  Heavens To Betsy combines The Black Crows with The Allman Brothers for an intense experience. “I want this record to be something you’ll want to crank up when you’re with your friends and celebrating life” Jeremiah says. “I want people to put this record on the stereo and get a kick in the ass.”  I can definitely see that happening.

It’s been just two years since Johnson’s last album Straightjacket and the man shows no signs of slowing down.  He’s a talented songwriter and tells a good story- put that even above the musicianship here. “I wanted to try something different than on any of my previous releases” he says. “I really took the ‘song first’ concept and got back to my roots in blues-based Southern rock.”  The result is a batch of songs that show you a good time even while taking you into more emotional territory.  White Lightning was penned from the perspective of a struggling southern farmer, while Tornado salutes a wildcat lover with lines like “she’s a hot cup of coffee on a bumpy road”.

The song that really gets to me, thanks to having gone through a similar experience quite recently with my father in law, is Long Way Home. “(It’s) about my grandmother, who suffered terribly from dementia, and the story of the last time she remembered who I was.”  Even more personal for Jeremiah is Leo Stone, “about the overwhelming joy I had while my fiancée was in the final stages of her pregnancy.” Producer Pete Matthews cracked the whip on Heavens To Betsy, never willing to settle for ‘good enough’… sometimes the first take was the one, but he wasn’t afraid to push the band all day until he got what he needed.

Southern rock is the vibe, like a mix of the Crows and Allmans as mentioned before.  This disc is powered by a passion for life and that’s what you’ll connect with.  Heavens To Betsy is just the sort of album that will resonate deeply with those who listen to it. www.jeremiahjohnsonband.com

KEY CUTS:  Long Way Home, Tornado, Born Under A Bad Sign (the Albert King song)

TWO TRUTHS AND A LIE Pi Jacobs (Travianna Records) *****

This is one of the coolest albums you or I will hear this year.  The cover is a country cliché, but inside Two Truths And A Lie is loaded with emotional truth dressed in great songwriting.  It’s an elastic combination of styles; country, bluegrass and the blues with some southern rock swagger thrown in, plus it’s semi- autobiographical. This disc about strength, struggle, romance, and resilience.

Pi says she didn’t start out here to write about herself. “The idea was to pay homage, in song, to normal, everyday women doing extraordinary, brave and inspiring acts” she says.  “Of course, in the process some of the stories that came out were directly about me… and some were not.  Just like the game ‘Two Truths And A Lie’.”  For me, even before diving into Jacobs’ words and the stories they spin, the sound of this record really got my attention with its mix of electronic and acoustic instruments- I could really start to feel the songs before finding out their intentions.

Pi says the sound of Two Truths And A Lie was inspired, in part, by the TV show Justified or, more directly, its theme song, Long Hard Times To Come by Gangstagrass, which mixes hip-hop elements with country instrumentation. “I think I got into the show so I could hear the song over and over again” she cracks.  As a result, Truths is rooted in grooves and syncopated beats.  When the time came to record she brought in percussionist Butch Norton, an original member of The Eels as well as Lucinda Williams’ drummer for more than a decade, to provide a beat-driven backbone.

The combination here of a percussion-based sound with southern rock swagger and bluegrass instruments- dobro, upright bass, banjo- is delectable.  “It’s an interesting blend of sounds.  It rocks, but it’s got plenty of dobro too.” Jacobs observes.  There’s plenty of honesty in the songs that make up Two Truths– this is good company. www.pijacobs.com

KEY CUTS:  Broken Cup, Diana The Hunter, Waitress Blues

STILL COOKIN’ Phantom Blues Band (VizzTone) *** ½

Horn powered blues and old fashioned R&B is what awaits you here.  The title, Still Cookin’, explains the cover photo and the music on this disc too

Since the early 90’s the Phantom Blues Band has been touring the world as the two-time Grammy winning band for Taj Mahal as well as appearing as a world class all-star band on their own.  The guys in this group, many of them Blues Music Awards winners, also have a long list of credits as touring artists and have topped of the list studio musicians for the likes of Robert Cray, Buddy Guy, Otis Rush BB King, Hendrix, The Stones, Bonnie Raitt and more.  They say you can judge people by the company they keep, and the fact that artists like those have leaned on the members of the Phantom Blues Band for help automatically makes these guys worth checking out.

Guys in the band wrote or co-wrote more than half of the songs on Still Cookin’ and their combined influences are not hard to spot.  “We all grew up on great songs from the late 50’s on, and extended our library of influences from the Great American Songbook, including the roots of the blues” they say.  The sweet horn action on these tunes has a real uptown feel, and an unlikely detour into reggae grooves on Shine On is cool, it reminds me of Parachute Club, as does Tequila Con Yerba. Yeah- you could rightly say that this is party time blues.

Blues producer extraordinaire Tony Braunagel is also the drummer in Phantom Blues Band and he’s rock solid with a fluid grip on the backbeat that lets these songs live and breathe.  Mike Finnegan (keys) is the singer, and he’s got a soulfully shaggy voice that suits the songs rather well.  Still Cookin’ is horn-driven R&B that knows how to show you a good time. www.thephantombluesband.com

KEY CUTS:  Bad Blood, Don’t Fight It, Blues How They Linger

KING OF THIS TOWN Blackie & The Rodeo Kings (Warner) *****+

2020 finds Blackie & The Rodeo Kings issuing their 10th album.  What started as a one-off tribute to songwriter Willie P. Bennett in 1996 has turned into one of the best roots music combos around.  When you hear some bands you think “these guys are meant to make music together”, and that’s true with King Of This Town.

I found the band in 1999 with the double disc Kings Of Love and have been a fan since; my wife and I saw them live last year in Edmonton.  Blackie & The Rodeo Kings- Colin Linden, Tom Wilson, Stephen Fearing- have, as their website says, “evolved into one of the finest roots-oriented bands in North America, and remain one of Canada’s greatest musical treasures”.  Those of us that call ourselves fans agree with that.  King Of This Town hits deep as it journeys along several different grooves, from the spiritual dirge/ stomp Hard Road that opens to the quiet plea Grace at the other end.  There are times when King rocks, but not in a Marshall-stacks-turned-up-to-11 kind of way.

If you’re not familiar with The Rodeo Kings, look them up on I Tunes, Apple Music, Spotify or however you get your music these days and bend an ear to a fantastic catalogue, and let it lead you up to King Of This Town.  There’s no phoning it in or frivolous “Ooo baby let’s rock” nonsense here (not that there’s anything wrong with that) just master storytellers at the height of their craft.  I don’t have liner notes to refer to here but Tom, Stephen and Colin each take turns at the mic, no doubt singing the numbers they wrote. I put this on, turned the lights off in my music room and was just gone.

Folk, roots and country influences gather here to make King Of This Town a powerful and compelling set in its unassuming casualness.  GREAT stuff. www.blackieandtherodeokings.com

KEY CUTS:  Cold 100, Grace, Walking On Our Graves

OUT OF THE BOX Ben Rice RB Stone (Middle Mountain Music) *****++

Ready for a new genre?  This is blues-based cigar box guitar rock & roll. Mixing 3, 4 and 6 string cigar box guitars (yes, it’s a thing), Out Of The Box is primordial rock & roll with greasy slide and a wee bit of echo, and it’s spellbinding.

I’ve only seen a cigar box guitar a few times, mostly at Harry Manx concerts.  Out Of The Box is no accident; RB and Ben wanted to show the versatility of the instruments and promote the guitar builders at the same time with this rather unique project, and boy howdy have they!  This is powerful rockabilly and stripped down blues based rock, crackling with energy that seems to bounce off the walls, a gonzo vibe that grabs you by the hand and yanks you right into the middle a great party.

Wikipedia calls the cigar box guitar “a simple chordophone that uses an empty cigar box as a resonator.  The earliest had one or two strings; modern models typically have three or more”, and knowing that makes Out Of The Box even more stunning.  The disc contains 11 well written original songs, recorded and mixed by Jimi Bott (drummer for The Proven Ones and The Fabulous Thunderbirds) at Roseleaf Recording in Portland, Oregon.  The musical vibe across the album ranges from the Mississippi Delta (Train of Time) to roots rock (Hey Politician) to instrumental rockers (Lobo Jam, Hot Rod Mama) and all points in between.

I still find it hard to believe that such powerful sounds can come from such primitive instruments.  Out Of The Box makes my knees freeze and my liver quiver in a way that hasn’t happened for a long time.  Of course they didn’t make all this noise themselves; Dave Melyan is on drums and Joseph Barton on bass with Ben and RB on various cigar box guitars and RB blowing harp on a couple of tunes.  I’m digging this at LEAST as much as Bill Blues’ new record, and I LOVE that thing.  This one comes out March 6thwww.rbstone.com www.benricelive.com

KEY CUTS:  Lobo Jam, Hot Rod Mama, Jesus Needs A Gig

DRIVE ON Tas Cru (Subcat Records) *****

Looking back at the rest of this column I see some mighty high marks, but dammit I’m being sent a lot of awesomely great stuff lately.  Drive On is Tas Cru’s 9th album, 11th if you include his two ‘blues for kids’ records.  It’s smooth, moves with organic soul and sounds like it was made for road trippin’.

Tas’s real name is Rick Bates.  He got the ‘Tas Cru’ nickname when he was a sideman in a Montreal group; roughly translated from Quebecois slang it supposedly means “raw potato”.  Grounded in a variety of blues styles like swing, shuffles, ballads and rockers, Drive On engages from the get-go with tasty guitar work and bass lines that just feel sooo good.  The tenor sax of Anthony Terry is a new and welcome addition too.  Tas has an earthy, likeable singing style and plays a variety of guitars; electric, acoustic, resonator and cigar box.  Whether he’s stepping on the gas or bringin’ it down, if I had to describe this in one word (yeah, like THAT’S gonna happen) it would be ‘supple’- not a word usually used in connection with the blues.

If you want to get people out on the dance floor the title cut has a great funky groove and Kinda Mess is a classic one chord boogie.  Feel like rubbing naughty bits with someone?  Cry No More is a sweet acoustic ballad and In This Moment is a brooding instrumental ballad- take your pick.  No matter what you’re up for, Drive On has the song that fits. With memorable melodies and tempos shifting from song to song- the upbeat party stuff to the slow songs just mentioned- Drive On feels like the rhythm of life itself… perhaps that’s why I’m responding so strongly.  In a better world, this album would become huge. www.tascru.com

KEY CUTS:  Drive On, In This Moment, Kinda Mess

BOOTSTRAPS AND OTHER AMERICAN FABLES Jangling Sparrows (independent) *****

This band from North Carolina makes ragged-ass rock & roll that will have you thinking Crazy Horse, Bob Dylan, Tom Petty and John Prine, often at the same time.  The casual swagger, passion and imperfections of Bootstraps And Other American Stories is what makes it so damned perfect.

Bootstraps is a wall of sound rock & roll record designed to be your companion through trouble and triumph” says singer/ guitarist Paul Edelman.  “The painful, the ridiculous, the confusing, the frustrating, the crazy, the strong and insecure.  It’s all here, large and loud, to match the big American rock & roll heart.”   This is rock & roll with some country spit and twang that you would expect from a group with ‘Jangling’ in their name, with the looseness of 60’s-era Rolling Stones.  The disc was produced, recorded and engineered by Amos McGregor at Marshall Sound Studio in North Carolina and mastered by Derek Brown; kudos to both for a superb job at capturing such a natural sound.

The songs on Bootstraps cover a surprising range of topics too.  Estuaries is a plea to ride out the storms that life throws at us, and Follow Me Down is about women who are attracted to intensity until they get too close to it.  And though I don’t usually get my history from rock records, Hey! Hey! Harriet Tubman is about the woman born into slavery who escaped to help some 300 slaves to freedom via the underground railroad. “The upbeat feel and lyrics of the song are meant to recall the spirit of a rallying cry, and be an admonishment of much of modern culture” Paul notes. “It isn’t so much about her as it is talking to her.”

Bootstraps has an organic, down-home feel to it, even when the band is ripping it up and blasting away.  Edleman, the principal songwriter here, has a way of digging deep without preaching, telling stories within his songs that encourage us to be our best selves.  This is also the kind of record where you can pull back from that and just enjoy how it sounds or feels.  Either way, you’re in for quite a ride. www.janglingsparrows.com

KEY CUTS:  Bootstraps, Hey! Hey! Harriet Tubman, Estuaries

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