Music Reviews by John The Rock Doctor March 7th

GOD DON’T NEVER CHANGE: THE SONGS OF BLIND WILLIE JOHNSON Various Artists (Alligator) Surely the lesser known of the two Johnsons and no relation that I am aware of, Blind Willie Johnson was a Texas bluesman that grew up under the most trying circumstances.  Here, an eclectic and talented variety of artists pay tribute to Willie’s gospel blues in a manner in which one would assume Willie would be pleased.Willie Johnson wasn’t born blind.  In some circles the story goes that his father beat his step mother for going out with another man and, out of revenge, she threw lye in the boy’s face, blinding him at the age of 7.  That his music would turn out to be so devotional is miraculous in its own way- so full of devotion and love, yet haunting at the same time.While I’ve considered myself a blues fan for decades now, that doesn’t necessarily make me very knowledgeable on the genre.  The songs of Blind Willie Johnson on this disc that I am aware of I’ve heard by other artists without knowing where they came from, performers from Son House to Led Zeppelin.  The two songs that lead off this set, Soul Of A Man and Nobody’s Fault But Mine, Welsh belter Tom Jones has covered to great effect on his recent albums Spirits In The Room and Praise & Blame.  A compilation like this, celebrating the music of someone who died in 1945, becomes about assembling the right cast, people that can handle gospel and the blues- people that, when you hear them sing this stuff you go “Oh yeah, that makes perfect sense”.  In that regard, Alligator hit this one over the wall.On God Don’t Never Change we get 2 tracks each from Tom Waits and Lucinda Williams, with the rest of the disc being filled out by people like Cowboy Junkies, Maria McKee, Sinead O’Connor, Blind Boys of Alabama and more.  Tom Waits’ version of John The Revelator is truly frightening, and both of the songs Lucinda Williams sings fit her like a glove, as if she’d written them herself.  Blind Willie Johnson’s songs here are treated with the reverence they deserve without and grand-standing or histrionics, and the people singing them understand them very well, knowing what is called for- we can’t ask for anything more than that.Blues aficionados will be aware of Blind Willie Johnson’s songbook and will acknowledge the roster of artists charged with bringing Willie’s music to the fore one more time.  At times celebratory or bone-chilling, often at the same time, God Don’t Never Change is one of THE essential blues recordings of this or any decade, and the informative liner notes make it even moreso.ESSENTIALS:  John The Revelator (Tom Waits), Nobody’s Fault But Mine (Lucinda Williams), Trouble Will Soon Be Over (Sinead O’Connor) THE BACK ON TRACK RECORDING PROJECT The Jordan Patterson Band (Fontana North/ Flaming Cheese)This guy put out a 4 song e.p. in 2014, one would assume to test the waters to see if a return to his love of playing and singing the blues was a viable course.  He must’ve gotten a solid reaction (I know I enjoyed it), because he’s back now with a full album that rocks, including re-worked versions of those four original songs.After forging a highly successful career in artist tour management and concert & event promotion, Patterson is back to playing and singing the blues.  Jordan is possessed of a great blues singing voice and, there’s no other way to say it- he’s a friggin’ wicked harp player, recalling guys like Junior Wells and James Cotton.  Of course all of this would be pointless without the right band, and despite the somewhat generic sounding name this is one of the most genuinely exciting bands I’ve heard in some time.  The Jordan Patterson band features drummer Benjamin Rollo, bassist Mark McIntyre, guitarist Darryl Romphf and Washington, DC-based guitarist Bobby Thompson and, together with Jordan on vocals and harp they make a wicked, joyous, explosive noise.There are many different sub-genres within the blues, as there is with most any musical form, and The Back On Track Recording Project is definitely what you would call “rockin’ blues”, music that practically forces you to get up and move- good thing I’m alone in the house right now!  It’s no wonder The JPB have been making the festival scene at home and abroad- I can easily envision them bringing the house down wherever they play.There’s the type of blues you like to listen to on a rainy Sunday afternoon when you’re staring out the window, and then there’s this stuff.  The songs on Back On Track and the performance of them is sexually charged, full of muscle and menace, real Saturday-night-let’s-blow-the-roof-off-this-dump stuff, the kind of music that makes you feel really alive, you know?  It gives you the kind of energy you need when you either want to get something done or just let your hair down and cut the fuck loose.ESSENTIALS:  If You’d Help Me Please, She’s Cool, Favourite Boy WONDERFUL CRAZY NIGHT Elton John (Mercury)Elton said he wanted his new record to be “jubilant” and in that he has certainly succeeded.  It’s also his first to use the Elton John Band in the studio since 2006’s The Captain & The Kid and it’s (get this) his 32nd album.  Oh yeah- it’ also the best thing he’s done in the new millennium.Lyrics are by Bernie Taupin (as all his best stuff has been) and for a T-Bone Burnette production, this disc is downright cheerful. The band includes long time sideman Nigel Olson on drums, Matt Bissonette on bass, his guitarist since the ‘classic’ days Davey Johnstone, Kim Bullard on keys and percussionist John Mahon. Though Burnette is known for a stripped down, old timey sound, this set is the closest Elton has been to his 70’s sound in a very long time.Although I’ve read reviews that say Taupin’s lyrics here don’t stand up to early work like Honky Chateau or Tumbleweed Connection, I would argue that they’re simply different.  I find Bernie to still be an excellent storyteller as a lyricist must be, and Elton has built up these songs with gusto and flair.  Maybe these songs aren’t the equal of their 70’s collaborations, but then they aren’t twenty-somethings with pop music world domination on their minds either.  John is a soon to be 69 year old father of two, and he’s a very different guy from the one that used to snort cocaine by the pound.  Rather than chasing current pop trends, what they’ve done here is craft a solid, engaging musical adventure, a very ‘Elton John’ album- way better than most of the stuff they cranked out in the 80’s.I’ve been a fan since around Tumbleweed, and while Wonderful Crazy Night isn’t the best thing Elton has ever done, I’d place it in his top ten.  The record sounds crisp, clean and very upbeat, and when I throw it on- I’m on my 8th or 9th spin as I write this- it makes me feel good, just as really good songs always do.   This is terrific.ESSENTIALS:  Looking Up, Wonderful Crazy Night, The Open Chord THE CHICAGO WAY Toronzo Cannon (Alligator)Talk about a mission statement! This, Toronzo’s 4th album overall and first for Alligator, holds everything that is exciting about the blues- the playing, the storytelling, it’s like a force of nature.  The blues is full of would be guitar heroes, but it’s time for them to step aside and make room for Toronzo Cannon.Standing on the shoulders of Chicago blues greats like Howlin’ Wolf, Koko Taylor, Muddy Waters and Buddy Guy, Toronzo came up through the same Windy City scene, and this album is going to be a tough one to beat. I challenged myself at every step” he says of The Chicago Way, “writing each song to connect with someone in my audience.  I try to write songs that will be both up-to-the-minute and timeless.”  He adds that “Blues is truth-telling music, and I want my audience to relate to my stories.”Cannon bought his first guitar at age 22 and had the natural talent to master it quickly.  Although his initial focus was reggae, the now 48 year old guitarist found himself increasingly drawn to the blues. “It was dormant in me” he admits, “but when I started playing the blues, I found my voice and the blues came pouring out.”  As a singer Toronzo is quite soulful, and the way he man-handles his left-handed Flying V is muscular, assured, and genuinely thrilling.  Blues & Rhythm call him “Among the cream of the next generation of Chicago blues musicians” and, after even a single listen to The Chicago Way you’ll have no choice but to agree.  Solid songs and a smokin’ hot band led by a shit-hot singer/ guitarist, this record will raise the roof and bring you to your knees at the same time.There are times, like a song such as Strength To Survive that Toronzo reminds me of Robert Cray, but generally speaking The Chicago Way is not unlike a bare-knuckled street brawl.  Tough emotional songs and even tougher playing make for one helluva record, and it’s likely to knock out any competition that steps in its way.  For many of the last 26 years, I’ve thought earnestly about quitting album reviews so I can go back to being just another music fan- but then an album like this comes along, and I get a chance to tell you about it here and play the songs one on of my radio shows- not about to turn my back on that.  One more thing- even though he’s a rising star, Toronzo still holds down his day job as a CTA bus driver.ESSENTIALS: Midlife Crisis, Walk It Off, When Will You Tell Him About Me NO MORE SORROW Jake Chisolm (independent)Powerful and with more than a hint of funk, this is Toronto guitarist Jake Chishom’s 2nd album, following 2013’s Diamond In A Coalmine, and it carries for the spirit of the blues, soul and rock & roll that inspired him to become the musician he is today.These 10 originals evoke vivid and shameless tales of love, lust and lessons learned, and the trio- including Chris Banks on bass and Sly Juhas on drums- make a thick sound.  There were some guests in the studio too; Paul Reddick on harp… James Elliott, recording and mixing engineer, chipped in some bass on the track Merry Go Round, and some extra percussion work comes from Ryan Aubin.While the sound here isn’t lo-fi, there’s some real grit to these songs that you’ll like- I don’t know if it’s the case, but this disc feels like it was recorded live off the floor, it lurches in all the right places and it has a kind of communal swagger to it, the sort of energy you want from a blues record.No more Sorrow comes up short in the blistering guitar solo department, but Chisholm has an almost early Hendrix- like feel when he’s grooving, some of his phrasing has a similar, relaxed feel when he’s just chunking along on some chords- almost hypnotic, you could say.  Jake Chisholm is a gifted player, and No More Sorrow is most definitely worth your time- some really cool stuff here for you to discover.ESSENTIALS:  Just Because You Want To, Swamp Stomp, I’m On Fire GOOD, GOOD LOVIN’ Bill Durst (Durstwerks)Sweet Mother of God, what have I just heard?!?  This is the 5th solo album by former Thundermug guitarist Bill Durst from Stratford, Ontario, and it’s one of the most exciting records I have heard in a very long time. “Every once in awhile in the life of an artist the gods do smile” Durst says in the bio, “and you are helped by unseen hands.  After experimenting for a few years, we have found our musical sweet spot.”Good, Good Lovin’ is the blues alright, but it also rocks like a motherf**ker, and the comparison that immediately comes to mind is if Stevie Ray and Billy Gibbons had a love child.  Written by Durst and bassist Joe DeAngelis (also Thundermug’s original vocalist) and driven by the insistent pounding of drummer Corey Thompson, the performance of each of the 9 songs on this album are absolutely fearless.  I love how it feels like the band is just leaning into it and going for broke at every possible turn.They say you can judge people by the company they keep, and Bill Durst has opened for the likes of Aerosmith, The Yardbirds, Little Feat, Johnny Winter and Bad Company, and no doubt terrified them in doing so. This set is very physical, it feels like turbo charged Texas blues, it’s like a big, nasty muscle car smokin’ the tires and daring anyone to take them on.  Bill Durst is an incredible guitarist- not in the “weedly-weedly, look how fast I can play” sense, but in the way each chord and every note he plays is drenched in soul and sweat-  I’ll take that over the lightning ANY day.Good, Good Lovin’ is a rockin’ blues record, with muscle, soul and vitality to spare.  Some albums are good, some even great- this one is SPECTACULAR.ESSENTIAL: King Snake Prowl, 21st Century Blues, Northern ElectricTHE SPACE BETWEEN Van Norden with Audrey Richmond (Last Tango)Described as a singer/ songwriter/visionary, arranger and producer, Walter Van Norden considers himself essentially a folk artist. The welcome addition of Aubrey Richmond’s voice and fiddle magic gives this batch of songs a high, lonesome sound I find irresistible.The foundation of each song here is a lush acoustic guitar track. Van Norden grew up with a broad range of musical influences, but his primary DNA shows here- he gravitated towards the music of Joni Mitchell, Neil Young and Gordon Lightfoot, and it shows. The Space Between has been described as “an eclectic mix of coffee house folk music and country roots”, and this disc certainly reflects that. It’s good old-fashioned storytellin’ that covers a range of emotions in roughly equal measure, like a conversation with your best friend. It explores the space between with songs of struggle, heartache and jubilance.Trading vocals, harmonizing and sometimes downright confronting one another vocally, the music is anchored in Walter Van Norden’s acoustic guitar rhythms and features some sweet country fiddle playing and heartfelt vocals of Aubrey Richmond. Special guests include John Ellis on Dobro and Eric Heywood (Chrissie Hynde & The Pretenders, Ray Lamontagne) on pedal steel. EDM Sauce praises his music as “lush production with a strangely epic quality to the music, and lyrics with a few layers of complexity”- and they’re right.Even though I’m meeting Walter Van Norden here for the first time, there’s something about these songs that draws me in immediately, as though we’ve known each other for a while and are engaged in a deeply personal conversation. It wouldn’t be surprising to find The Space Between to be one of those records that haunts my dreams… it’s happened before.ESSENTIALS: Sweet Nothings, First, Tsunami TODAY, TONIGHT, TOMORROW Dawson Rutledge (Last Tango)This is Rutledge’s solo debut, and I do mean solo- just Dawson with his voice and guitar, and barely noticeable percussion courtesy of a kick drum and tambourine. Bare bones, and riveting.I threw this on and listened for a while before digging into his bio to find who this guy is. Turns out he’s an 18 year old performer from Cranbrook, and last year he was awarded the top male musician scholarship by his high school, and a District/ Authority scholarship by the Ministry of Education for his exceptional music ability. I was frankly shocked that music this subtle and lived in came from somebody so young with so little life experience but hey, some people are wise beyond their years- and Dawson Rutledge is one of those guys.The power of these 8 songs comes not just from Dawson’s lyrics, but from the simplicity of the arrangements and performances. No fancy guitar histrionics or vocal tricks to get between you and the tunes. He’s been singing since the age of 8 and picked up a guitar when he was just 10, so there’s an enjoyable confidence in his performance that comes from that experience. Today, Tonight, Tomorrow also has a lo-fi, homemade feel to it that just makes it that much more enjoyable to listen to.ESSENTIALS: Mysterious Woman, Bullets and Bandages, Runaway Blues HEAVY CROWN The Last In Line (Frontiers)I’ve had this album since before its Feb.19th street date but had to decide how I feel about it before writing this review. For the one or two that don’t know, this is essentially the classic-era Dio line-up of Vivian Campbell, Vinnie Appice and Jimmy Bain with Andrew Freeman on vocals. It’s pretty good rock & roll, but there is baggage to get through first.After a 27 year break, what started as a casual and fun reunion jam in 2011 in an LA rehearsal room blossomed into a fully-fledged recording project. Freeman, a friend of drummer Vinnie Appice’s, is a decent belter- no Ronnie James Dio for sure, but then how sad would it be if he was? To me he sounds like smoother version of Mark Tornillo, the guy that has been singing for Accept since 2009, and that ain’t bad.I’ve been a Dio fan forever, and this is the classic line-up that created those first three albums that I still listen to today; Holy Diver, The Last In Line, Sacred Heart. Taking those records into consideration here, Heavy Crown feels like it could’ve been a worthwhile follow-up to the 2nd Dio record, from which this casual band took its name. If you liked that one- and it’s probably my favorite Dio record- then you’ll enjoy this disc.Freeman is a solid vocalist, but an odd thing happens as you listen to these songs- with the Dio band intact here, you’ll start superimposing Ronnie’s voice on these tracks- I know I did, and that’s why it took me so long to settle in with Heavy Crown. It’s not a Dio album, but then it kind of is- at least musically speaking. Bassist Jimmy Bain and drummer Vinnie Appice were always a formidable rhythm section, and after all his years with Def Leppard as Steve Clark’s replacement, it’s a pleasure and a real joy to hear Viv Campbell tear it up on some knuckle dragging hard rock.Toiling in the shadow of the late Ronnie James Dio’s shadow ensured that success or longevity would be hard for this band, and I’d say undeservedly so… but the unexpected death of bassist Jimmy Bain in January has likely put an end to them. The band was on a rock cruise with Def Leppard and due to perform- Bain was being treated for pneumonia, but died suddenly from an undiagnosed case of lung cancer on January 23rd. It’s a cliché I know, but his work lives on in the Rainbow and Dio records he was a part of, and now The Last In Line too.Heavy Crown is tasty, mid-80’s style metal, very much in the vein of the first two Dio albums in particular, and Jeff Pilson’s production is spot on. Despite the accidental weirdness attached to this disc, it’s solid and enjoyable, particularly if you’re a fan of that era of this band- I like it quite a bit.ESSENTIALS: Burn This House Down, I Am Revolution, Curse The Day HONEST MAN Matt Andersen (True North)I’ve been a fan since first hearing Andersen’s barebones collaboration The Banff Sessions with harp player Mike Stevens. I’ve bought some his records since and make a point of playing his stuff on my Soft Rock Café radio show. There are some performers that make you feel like you’ve been invited to participate in a warm, intimate conversation- Matt Andersen is one of those guys, and Honest Man is one of those records.Matt has built quite a following the old fashioned way- on stage. Excellent word of mouth aside, he’s also picked up 3 Maple Blues Awards, a Memphis Blues Challenge win, a European Blues Award, and a Juno nomination for 2014’s magnificent Weightless album. People are paying attention and they like what they hear. His voice has gospel power and the easy going acoustic songs on Honest Man are damn near irresistible. You can find the video for Let’s Get Back on line (I follow the record company on facebook), and one view will have you wanting to hear the rest of the album.There’s an intimate, personal quality, a warmth, to the songs throughout Matt’s career that carries over onto Honest Man. Whether he sings about a relationship as he does on All The Way or lamenting the way things used to be on the aforementioned Let’s Get Back, it’s real easy to get lost in the narrative- but in a blissful, thinking about your own life kind of way, and only great songs can help you get to that place.I not only love the way Honest Man feels, I love the way it sounds too, though I can’t speak to the production aspect of it, listening to a stream provided by the record company to write this review with no liner notes to refer to. What sets this apart from many other records is the emotional truth at the heart of it, much like Matt’s other albums. Even an up-tempo party tune like Who Are You Listening To has that- makes you want to dance and think at the same time.I enjoy Honest Man a whole bunch… I know it’s only March, but if you were to ask me to do a ‘best of’ list right now, this album would be right at the top. It’s a great record, with heart and soul that makes you glad to be alive.ESSENTIALS: Let’s Get Back, One Good Song, Honest Man EAT ME The Last Vegas (AFM)The guy that handles this label (and Massacre, and Frontiers) sends me a pile of downloads every month, more than I have time to listen to. So, to decide what to review, I’ll skim a few tracks to see if they grab me, or read the first part of the accompanying bio to see if that pulls me in- and if the answer to either is “no”, then I move on. When the bio for Last Vegas called them “…a mash-up of full tilt boogie rock, drone-y Zeppelinesque riffs and alt-psychedelic ballads”, despite the dippy name I knew further investigation was warranted.Eat Me is just the sort of grimy rock & roll that I really enjoy. At first I thought “sort of like AC/DC” then “no, maybe more like Rhino Bucket”, but neither comparison takes in the whole picture. Recorded at Groovemaster Studios in Chicago under a ridiculously tight deadline, this disc captures that urgent energy. “There’s a lot of feeling in this record” says guitarist Adam Arling. “It’s fascinating what you can express musically when you record songs so quickly, never second-guessing your gut instinct. We found the soul in rock & roll, but let’s not get too serious… I mean the album is called Eat Me after all.”Eat Me is the band’s 4th record, though I will confess I’ve never heard of them before. In the 6 years they’ve been making records they’ve become masters of rock sleaze, and I mean that as a high compliment. They’re like a hair band, but with muscle and chops, and full-tilt boogie is their stock in trade. Although recorded in Chicago, this album was mixed in Sweden by Chris Laney, song by song as the tracks were completed. “We chipped away at each track’s session, layering guitars, Moog synths, bongos, bells, wind chimes and even an old school talk box” says guitarist Bryan Wilkinson, who makes his recording debut here with Last Vegas. “Chris’s mixes kept blowing us away. Chris asked if he could go crazy in the mixes, and we demanded that he do so.”At the end of the day, this is just a really cool rock & roll record. I have to drive to Edmonton on Sunday to catch a flight to Vancouver to see Black Sabbath, and you can bet the rent that Eat Me will be playing at top volume.ESSENTIALS: Bloodthirsty, Hot Fudge, Voodoo Woman WAR BRIGADE Mystic Prophecy (Massacre)Another download from my buddy Dustin, a real window rattler from this German power metal outfit, due to hit the streets in North America on May 6th. Billed as being in the same vein as Judas Priest, Accept and Testament, Mystic Prophecy are speaking a language I understand on this, their 9th album.The European metal scene is vital and diverse thanks to bands like this, unafraid to walk the line between traditional and more progressive forms of metal music, most aptly demonstrated on the track Burning Out, and this is quite simply a great sounding album. Unless you’re really into the Euro-scene it’s unlikely you’ll recognize the names of the musicians that make up Mystic Prophecy, but for the record they are; R.D. Lipakis, vocals… Markus Pohl, guitars… Kali Ragazas, guitars… Joey Roxx, bass… Tristan Mariwurm, drums. If you enjoy latter day Judas Priest with maybe a touch of Iron Maiden, and if you really got off on the last 3 Accept albums like I have, then War Brigade is definitely worthy of your attention.It’s hard to find words to describe War Brigade, but “thick” and “relentless” come to mind, and the more I listen to this the more it reminds me of Accept’s latest album, 2014’s Blind Rage. Music like this has a physical quality to it, and the song writing is pretty sharp. I love the chorus in the 4th track; “666, crucifix!” they shout, and I enjoy thinking about how the folks at the Westboro Baptist Church might respond to a nugget like that.War Brigade is an extremely well-produced record that hits all the right notes in terms of breadth and energy, there’s a relentlessness to the progression of these dozen songs that will pick you up and carry you forward if you let it. It’s fist-pumpingheavy metal, so turn this up loud and throw some horns, neighbours be damned. On my aforementioned drive to Edmonton, as soon as Last Vegas finishes, I’m popping this one into the CD player.ESSENTIALS: The Crucifix, Good Day to Die, War Of Lies SOLO RECORDINGS VOLUME 3” Steve Hill (No Label Records)The latest entry into Steve Hill’s ongoing album series is a riveting collection of blues tracks- hard to believe a one man band can make this much noise!Not sure why somebody would want to be a one man band, perhaps the novelty of that approach appeals to them- but when you’re talking Steve Hill, the results are nothing short of amazing. The big, fuzzy electric cuts have a kind of Crazy Horse energy to them, but he can turn around and give a small, intimate performance on acoustic ballads like Slowly Slipping Away. “When I started the Solo Recordings project 4 years ago, I had hopes that the songs and performances would resonate with my existing fan-base” Steve says. “I am constantly trying to improve on the songs, both lyrically and technically. I feel that (this) is my best work yet and I am excited to present it.”Volume 3 is a healthy helping of roadhouse style blues, full of bluster and swagger for the most part. Big, distorted riffs and chords wash over you as sweetly overdriven blues harp reaches into your chest to give your heart a good squeeze, and it’s hard to believe it’s just one guy doing all of this. Hill is a fine blues singer and a great guitarist- that might be hard to discern through the squalling walls of distortion, but when he busts out the acoustic on the aforementioned Slowly Slipping Away or Troubled Times or an acoustic toe-tapper like Emily there’s some seriously fine pickin’ going on here.I have the first two Solo Recordings sets (Vol. 1 was nominated for a Juno, Vol.2 took one home) and enjoy them, but Steve is right when he calls 3 his best yet. At times raw and feral and at others quiet and intimate, Solo Recordings Volume 3 is just one hell of a blues album.ESSENTIALS: Slowly Slipping Away, Rollin’ & Tumblin’/ Stop Breaking Down, Still A Fool And A Rollin’ Stone


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