Hot Wax Album Reviews by the ROCK DOCTOR April 20, 2022

BROTHER JOHNNY Edgar Winter (Quarto Valley Records) *****

More often than not tribute records are watered down, unfocused, well intentioned but meandering affairs. In this case, the opposite is true. Edgar Winter pays appropriate, high voltage homage to his late sibling with Brother Johnny. Edgar has gathered an all-star roster of collaborators to have a go at songs his brother was known for having written or performed, and the results are exciting.

Johnny Winter died in 2014 at the age of 70, 6 weeks before his final album Step Back was released. That record, along with 2011’s Roots featured several guest performers, so in a way Brother Johnny continues that vibe. Edgar worked on this album for some time, and both the attention to detail and love for his older brother are clearly evident. Where many tribute records feature several different bands doing their own thing, this one is united by the singularity of Edgar’s vision. According to a write up on Gregg Bissonette plays drums on all but one track, and only two bassists appear on the disc; Sean Hurley and Bob Glaub. As their review notes, this means “the foundation is strong for the assembled guests to shine in Winter’s honor.”

Brother Johnny is a lengthy record at 17 tracks, but Edgar has accomplished the rare feat of assembling a tribute album without a single weak cut among them, which has as much to do with the bed track performances as well as the guest list. Just some of the names involved include Joe Bonamassa, Billy Gibbons, Kenny Wayne Sheperd and Steve Lukather. Perhaps the most riveting track is a haunting version of Stranger with The Doobies’ Michael McDonald on vocals with Joe Walsh providing the guitar solos.

Some familiarity with Johnny Winters’ music is useful but hardly necessary to enjoy Brother Johnny. Lively arrangements and engaging performances by everyone involved make the disc an absolute joy to listen to. As Ultimate Classic Rock noted in the last sentence of their review, “Brother Johnny celebrates the six string stallion that he (Johnny Winter) was, and hopefully, this salute can serve as a portal to send listeners back o explore the original works.” Here, here; I’ll raise a glass to that.

KEY TRACKS: Stranger(with Michael McDonald & Joe Walsh), Mean Town Blues (with Joe Bonamassa), Rock ‘N’ Roll Hoochie Koo (with Steve Lukather)

SURVIVING THE LAW Nazareth (Frontiers) ****+

This is the long running Scottish rock band’s 25th studio album since their 1971 debut. I must admit I approached Surviving The Law with more than a little trepidation- after all, bassist Pete Agnew is the sole remaining original member. I gotta say though, after a couple of spins this has turned out to be a pretty solid slab of rock & roll.

In the history of rock hardly any band lineup stays intact, and that can be said of many of my favorites; Black Sabbath, Deep Purple, Accept and The Rolling Stones to name a few, and once singer Dan McCafferty was forced to retire for health reasons I figured Nazareth was done. Still I thought “what the hell, let’s check this thing out,” a good move on my part as it turns out the band still has a lot to offer. While it’s true this bears little resemblance to the group that made classic albums of my youth like Razamanaz and Hair Of The Dog, think about that… how sad would it be if they did?

Aside from Agnew on bass Nazareth 2022 includes Jimmy Murrison, the longest tenured guitarist in band history (much like Steve Morse in Deep Purple) and drummer Lee Agnew, who stepped in when original skinsman Darrel Sweet died from a heart attack in 1999. Carl Sentance (ex-Persian Risk) stepped up to the mic when McCafferty was forced to retire (with Dan’s blessing, I might add), and Surviving The Law is his 2nd album with the band. He sounds nothing like the guy he replaced, but having such a versatile set of pipes has really broadened Nazareth’s sonic palette.

As with 2018’s Tattooed On My Brain the new album was produced by Yann Rouiller at Sub Station in Scotland and includes songwriting contributions from all band members. The material is solid, and I’m taken in particular by the playing of guitarist Murrison with cool riffing and inventive solos. The father and son rhythm section of Pete and Lee Agnew roll up their sleeves and dig in to get the job done, and Sentance’s voice has both range and grit. All in all, this is the strongest lineup of the band since the early 70’s.

With so much personnel turnover I almost wish they would have chosen another name for the band, perhaps using the title of a classic song, but you can’t deny the cachet of the ‘Nazareth’ name. If you’ve been away from the band for awhile, don’t put on Surviving The Law and expect to hear “Hair Of The Dog II”… but if you have an appetite for solid hard rock that encourages bad driving habits, come on in- the water’s fine.

HOT TRACKS: Falling In Love, Mind Bomb, Strange Days, Psycho Skies

MERCY ME Ronnie Earl & The Broadcasters (Stony Plain) *****

If you like fluid, haunting blues guitar, Ronnie Earl is your man. Mercy Me, his 14th album for this label, is gentle, soulful, gorgeous, ethereal… just all kinds of wonderful adjectives. I could listen to this disc all day- in fact, I just did.

“I titled the album Mercy Me as I was thinking about all the things going on in the world” Ronnie says. “We need to have more mercy for the world, for other people and for ourselves.” Can I get an amen? Thanks. If you’ve listened to Earl at all in the past you know he’s got an easily identifiable tone and style, which he achieves without pedals or effects. As writer Ron Weinstock says, Ronnie is “a master of tonal dynamics, phrasing and solo construction. Earl builds solos like smoldering coals in a charcoal grill that bursts into flames when fat drips down.” I own all 14 of Ronnie’s Stony Plain records and agree heartily with Weinstock’s assessment.

Mercy Me is a sophisticated blend of vocal and instrumental cuts, originals and well chosen covers from the likes of Muddy Waters, John Coltrane, Dave Mason and Percy Mayfield. The album was produced by Earl, recorded and mixed by Huck Bennert and mastered at Sound Mirror Studio by Mark Donahue, and kudos to all for a fine, well done job. His band, The Broadcasters, are in excellent form and there are special guests along for the journey too including pianist Anthony Geraci, sax players Mark Earley and Mario Perrett, guitarist Peter Ward, and singer Tess Ferraiolo. All in all a sweet combination; Mercy Me is one of those discs that, if you turn the lights down low, will carry you away.

I thoroughly enjoy the upbeat stuff like Ronnie’s version of Muddy Waters’ Blow Wind Blow that opens the album, but when the band brings it down for an epic version of Percy Mayfield’s Please Send Me Someone To Love I get goose bumps. The pace is slow and romantic, and Earl’s soloing is enough to make you cry. Mercy Me isn’t ‘just another Ronnie Earl record’, this really is a work of art. I give the final word to music writer Ted Drozdowski who once said “what Ronnie pulls from wood, wire and old Fender amplifiers isn’t so much notes as the sound of the human heart beating with you, crying under the world’s weight, or acknowledging the inevitability of another sunrise.”

HOT TRACKS: Send Me Someone To Love, Alabama, Coal Train Blues

ESTABLISHED 1972 The Nighthawks (VizzTone) ****

The Rolling Stones may be ‘the best rock & roll band in the world’, but I’d like you to meet ‘the best bar band in the world’, according to their fans. Washington, DC’s legendary Nighthawks celebrate their 50th anniversary with Established 1972, a set of brand new tunes that are built for partying.

Road warriors of the blues ‘n’ roots variety The Nighthawks, like so many others, took advantage of the pandemic down-time to hunker down and work on their new album. Established 1972 is 14 new tracks, produced by longtime compadre David Earl at his Severn Sound Studio in Annapolis, Maryland. The press info describes this as “rockin’ heartfelt material unbound by any genre other than the widest range of American roots music”, a startlingly accurate description.

50 years in, founder/ lead singer/ harp assassin Mark Wenner remains at the helm, with drummer Mark Stutso, guitarist Don Hovey and bassist Paul Pisciotta all sharing vocals and songwriting on E-72. The songs themselves are relaxed, friendly and unpretentious, and you’ll find the playing the same. No showboating here, just 4 good friends having a whale of a time making the kind of music they love- a good thing to get next to. Aside from the ‘roots’ thing you’ll find elements of funk and even rockabilly in this constantly shifting musical stew, but no sudden movements as it all just flows agreeably. You’d be forgiven for thinking a track like Gas Station Chicken would be country, but that’s where drummer Stutso and bassist Pisciolotta provide some funk joy juice. And I must say that Mark Wenner’s harp playing is deep and soulful, a real joy to listen to.

Overall, Established 1972 is The Nighthawks doing what they do best; laying down righteous grooves and having themselves a good ol’ time. Obviously they’re a breath of fresh air on the DC scene, conjuring songs with tongue-in-cheek lyrics over a sound that could’ve come from Mississippi or Georgia, not the city around The White House. Decades of gigs and countless rabid fans led to them being dubbed ‘the best bar band in the world’, and 50 years in they’re still going strong. As they sing in the song Fuss And Fight “We’ll live until we die”, so don’t take life so seriously- and don’t forget to crank up Established 1972 so your neighbors can appreciate it too. Good times.

HOT TRACKS: Gas Station Chicken, Take It Slow, Driving

PARISH BLUES Josh Hyde (Louisiana Music Factory) *** ¾

Louisiana’s Josh Hyde is back with a hypnotic, charming new disc. Parish Blues is an exercise in casual excellence where vibe and feel take precedence over technical prowess. It’s like Lyle Lovett meets CCR, an album that really sneaks up on you.

The first thing I noticed when I put Parish Blues in my CD player was a sort of looseness almost like Crazy Horse but not quite that loose jointed, a ramshackle elegance that you’ll be taken with. Josh is from Louisiana and this music certainly feels like it’s from that region, what the great Sonny Landreth has called “funky, atmospheric and soulful”. I like that Hyde goes more for feel than nailing down every detail to shiny perfection. While I can enjoy those sorts of records too, it’s nice to encounter someone that isn’t a slave to modern demons in the studio.

Of course Josh didn’t do it alone, he gives thanks to those that joined him on this particular trip. “This was my labor of love for the last 2 years” he says, “and I had great help from these wonderful musicians; Jamey Bell (drums), Shawn Stroope (bass), Jimmy Wallace (keyboards) and Derrek Phillips (percussion).” As you listen to the songs you’ll notice how intuitive the relationship is between the musicians as each gives what is needed to support the song at hand. I can just imagine them enjoying a beer while listening to playbacks, nodding their heads in time with big smiles on their faces.

Josh’s slide guitar on songs like Might Be A Tear is a nice bluesy element along with some tasty harp work from a guy named ‘Rockin Jake’, and I dig the overall pace of Parish Blues– none of the songs seem to be be in too much of a hurry. Like I said in the first paragraph this is an exercise in casual excellence that makes this an easy album to make friends with. When the last song is done, you’ll be smiling and feeling pretty good, and in my books that goes a long, long way.

HOT TRACKS: Holding On To Dreams, Might Be A Tear, All Alone Again

GENERATION MIND Black Swan (Frontiers) *****

Top shelf hard rock here from Black Swan for their second album, following up 2020’s magnificent Shake The World. In some ways Generation Mind is like a time travel trip back to the 80’s but the best, hard rockin’-est part. Big riff powered songs with a 4 on the floor rhythm section, it’s a thing of dark, swaggering heart-pounding beauty.

It’s often true that a band’s second album tells you whether a band has what it takes to go the distance. As much as I liked Black Swan’s debut, I like Generation Mind even more. Perhaps they wouldn’t label themselves a ‘super group’, but the reality is that’s just what they are. With singer Robin McAuley (McAuley Schenker Group), guitarist Reb Beach (Winger, Whitesnake), bassist/ producer Jeff Pilson (Foreigner, Dokken) and drummer Matt Starr (Ace Frehley, Mr. Big), these guys have bonafides up the ying-yang. McAuley’s voice in particular seems to defy age (he’s 69) as he sings with as much power and voltage as he always has; kind of reminds me of John Corabi.

Where your average supergroup can quickly deteriorate into a mishmash of warring egos resulting in diminishing returns, Black Swan does not have that problem. These guys are all rowing in the same direction and you can really feel that unity of purpose and spirit in Generation Mind. Beach’s riffing is just classic and his solos can get quite acrobatic, while Pilson and Starr don’t complicate things in the engine room- they just get on their instruments and drive it home. All this along with McAuley’s vocals makes for an absolutely irresistible, unstoppable hard rock juggernaut.

Being a fan of each individual band members’ work from the past may enhance your listening pleasure with Generation Mind but it’s hardly necessary to appreciate the bounty of rock ‘n’ roll riches presented to us here. Just like their debut, this album was tracked at Pilson’s home studio in LA. This is a record with plenty of meat on its bones, plenty for your average head banger to sink their teeth into. Barely a 3rd of the way through 2022 I’ve heard some excellent hard driving rock & roll, but Black Swan’s newest may very well be my favorite.

HOT TRACKS: Before The Light, Killer On The Loose, How Do You Feel


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