WELCOME ABOARD THE MIDNIGHT TRAIN Night Bluemers (independent) *****
I was planning on taking the week off between Christmas and New Year’s Eve from writing reviews, but when I listened to this while ripping it to the computer to use on my radio shows, waiting became impossible. This is Night Bluemers’ recording debut and it’s exciting. Powered by superior musicianship and song writing, Welcome Aboard The Midnight Train is fantastic.
Before even picking up their instruments Night Bluemers are hitting the right notes with an evocative album cover (give it another look, I’ll wait) and a title that combines two iconic blues elements; midnight and trains, with the suggestion of blues legends buried in the grooves. Welcome Aboard The Midnight Train is 7 originals and 3 covers that blend seamlessly together. Singer/ guitarist Normand Beliveau is the creative driving force of the band, but all the other members collaborated with him on crafting the songs into their final form, adding their input and parts remotely (you know why) to produce a spectacular sounding record that feels like they were playing in the room together.
Welcome Aboard The Midnight Train is the epitome of blues spirit as the songs take us to some of the usual places but with tight, energetic performances. NB’s cover of the classic You Gotta Move (The Stones covered it on 1971’s Sticky Fingers) with guest vocalist Dawn Tyler Watson takes the song to new places as it shifts tempo while Dawn and Normand trade off verses and lines. Night Bluemers even take the classic Oh Suzanna and turn it into a loping blues shuffle. The original numbers are enticing too, and there’s no filler on this disc; each song you listen to makes you want to hear more.
Shout outs are due the other members of the band; Jean Boudreau- bass… Jacques Livernoche- drums… Pierre Verville- piano & B3 and Christian Gamache- guitar, whose soloing lifts an already exquisite recording even higher. Energetic and lively playing and well written songs make Welcome Aboard The Night Train unforgettable. www.nightbluemers.com
HOT TRACKS: Poor Me, Dr. Blues, You Gotta Move (with Dawn Tyler Watson)
LIBRE Jesse Cook (Coach House) *****+
Stunning- that’s the word to describe Libre, the 11th studio album from this award winning producer/ composer/ guitarist. With Cook’s Spanish guitar and Algerian multi-instrumentalist Fethi Nadjem working an exotic magic over some 808 trap beats (the Roland TR 808 drum machine) the results are hypnotic and transcendent. The only thing that’s felt anywhere close to this is some of the stuff Robert Plant has been doing since 2007, and maybe some Sting. It’s like Tommy Emmanuel meets Al DiMeola.
“I wrote and recorded Libre during the pandemic when, like most people, I was longing for freedom” Jesse says. “My music was my escape from the four walls that surrounded me, and the storm that was swirling outside.” The idea for this album came from a summer drive with his 14 year old daughter. “My daughter entertained me with her favourite playlists” Cook says, much of which were trap and 808-inspired. I loved them too, and a question was planted in my mind; what would my music sound like mixed with those sounds?” That drum machine has come to define so many types of music since- hip hop, rap, pop reggaeton and trap- and Libre is the intoxicating sound of worlds colliding.
Cook’s intricate Spanish guitar patterns along with the exotic flourishes provided by Nadjem are a surprisingly agreeable combination with the usually stiff sounding 808 percussion backdrop, but this isn’t exactly new territory for Jesse. “I was in grade 10 when the Roland TR808 drum machine was first released” he notes. “I remember pooling my money together with friends in order to rent one for our mad basement recording sessions. We were spellbound; all of its drum sounds were made by an on-board analogue synthesiser, which gave it this other-worldly quality.” Of bringing those sounds into his music now, Cook says “it may seem like a departure for me to record an album dominated by 808 beats, but to me it feels like I’m coming full circle- kinda like when wide leg jeans came around again; it’s a bit like coming home.”
I often find fully instrumental records fatiguing, I like having verses and choruses as guideposts, but Libre and its exotic soundscapes is the kind of album I could listen to all day. Now excuse while I hit the repeat button yet again. www.jessecook.com
HOT TRACKS: Onward Till Dawn, Number 5, Jaleo
DUMPSTER FIRE Mean Old Fireman & The Cruel Engineers (independent) ****
Here is a beguiling mix of New Orleans grooviosity, southern rock and old school hard R&B laid over a blues framework. Gotta love the band name- Mean Old Fireman & the Cruel Engineers- and the album title, Dumpster Fire, is a slam against the year that 2020 turned out to be. Appropriate for sure, and a helluva good time too.
The band is led by Ned Bolle, a singer and tasty slide guitarist with 20 years’ experience as a fireman and paramedic, and the band name is derived from a line in the old Charlie McCoy song Lonesome Train Took My Baby Away. Dumpster Fire is a mix of 4 originals and 6 covers executed with verve and flair. The blues has always been at the core of Ned’s song writing and guitar playing; “Somewhere around the age of 11 I heard Derek & The Dominoes” he says, “and those first few notes Duane Allman plays on Key to The Highway galvanized me- I wanted to sound like that.” Using that as a jumping off point he then went back through blues artists like Charley Patton and Robert Johnson, then he got into the New Orleans greats- you can feel them all in these grooves.
As a singer Ned Bolle is kind of average but his slide playing is mighty tasty, and the rest of the band along with a handful of special guests swing with delicious abandon. “I envisioned (Dumpster Fire) to be a blues focused album” Bolle notes, “but I didn’t want it all to be just one style. Part of that was expanded by a lot of the instrumentation, horns and strings and whatnot. There’s some second generation funk, some R&B inspired things… the idea was to layer in a lot of influences on a blues framework. I wanted this record to be a smorgasbord, not just one course.”
To sum up Dumpster Fire I’d call it blues flavoured New Orleans soul but, as Ned just said, this record is a smorgasbord… and it’s a blast. www.meanoldfireman.com
HOT TRACKS: Outrun The Blues, Got No Spoons, Cold Women With Warm Hearts
THE LADY IN THE BALCONY: THE LOCKDOWN SESSIONS Eric Clapton (Mercury Studios) *****
Bought this with an I Tunes card I got for Christmas. Clapton’s latest is a mostly acoustic career retrospective, a combination of originals and covers, performed as an in-studio concert, a result of the cancellation of his Royal Albert Hall gigs scheduled for this past May. Sublime and intimate, The Lady In The Balcony is a far warmer and intimate experience than his Unplugged record of ’92.
To get it out of the way, I disagree with Eric’s anti-vax stance but couldn’t care less… people have forgotten how to disagree without demonizing each other and besides, I’ve always enjoyed his music and it would have been a shame to let this one go by. Most of the songs on The Lady In The Balcony will be familiar to you if you’re a fan, but the arrangements and instrumentation give them a new light. Not unlike Page & Plant with their Unledded record of ’94, he’s given some old pictures new frames. Some hits yes, but album tracks too and a good helping of blues standards to round out the experience.
Clapton’s long-time producer Russ Titleman was at the helm for the session, captured live at Cowdray House in West Sussex, England. His band turns in some gorgeous performances too; Nathan East (bass & vocals), Steve Gadd (drums) and Chris Stainton (keyboards), handling their parts with intuitive subtlety and a quietly swinging grace in this mellow context. The Lady In The Balcony is a wonderful listen on its own, but familiarity with any of the songs makes for a deeper experience. The version of Black Magic Woman here, in tribute to Peter Green, combines the Fleetwood Mac original with some of that Santana feel, Goin’ Down Slow has a haunted midnight quality to it, and Layla is downright jazzy.
The Lady In The Balcony: The Lockdown Sessions is available in a variety of formats and is a fun, intimate, career- spanning look back at everything Eric Clapton is and has been; bluesman, rock legend, gifted songwriter and even bereaved father, as evidenced by the poignant version of Tears In Heaven performed here. Had I gotten my hands on this when it came out in November, it would’ve made my top ten of the year. This is the sound of greatness aging gracefully. www.ericclapton.com
HOT TRACKS: Black Magic Woman, River Of Tears, Layla
ONE MONKEY CIRCUS Tim Nutt (Deer City Records) ****+
It’s been said that comedy is the blues for people who can’t sing. In that regard, Tim Nutt would be maybe a Johnny Winter or Sonny Boy Williamson, one of those guys that everyone likes and most of us enjoy. One Monkey Circus is his third album, and he talks about everyday stuff with a Canadian slant. You’ll find yourself saying “yeah!” several times throughout as you’re laughing.
As a fan of the Just for Laughs TV show the idiot box is where I first saw Tim, and I was an instant fan of his earthy humour. Some of his stuff is decidedly un-PC, which appeals to me even more. I even got to see him live once, but unfortunately it was in front of an ignorant crowd at a Husky Oil Christmas party in Lloydminster a few years back. What makes One Circus Monkey so good is that, like songs you really love, you can see yourself in bits like Smart Phones, Going To The Doctor and Zombie Drywall. On Let’s Google That he bemoans the days when “I don’t know” was an acceptable answer to a question. A bit of an old fashioned look at modern problems- I can definitely relate. In Good Song On The Radio he explains how fast he was going by saying “Tom Petty was on the radio and I fuckin’ LOVE that song!”
One Monkey Circus was recorded ay Freddy’s Brew Pub in Kelowna, and Nutt lets slip that he lives within 30 klicks of there- but he won’t say exactly where. The crowd is well mic’d and clearly appreciative of Tim’s sense of humour. The centerpiece of the album is also the longest, Young Cop Short Cop. He wanders off on tangents, at one point somebody’s cell phone goes off, and he manages to make getting stopped by a young cop (“he had that new cop smell”) while speeding through Banff National Park hilarious. The piece is universal with a Canadian viewpoint, just like early in the record where he talks about the old TV show Beachcombers; If you know it you’ll get it.
One Monkey Circus isn’t real out there social commentary although Homeless Questions, the opening bit, might make a few people squirm. Tim Nutt’s style of comedy, here and in his TV appearances, might be described as ‘blue collar’. Bottom line is his stories are funny and they hold up well under repeated listening, like George Carlin’s 70’s stuff. Need some laughs? Hey we all do… this is a good place to find ‘em. https://timnutt.bandcamp.com/album/one-monkey-circus
HOT TRACKS: Homeless Questions, Young Cop Short Cop, Let’s Just Google That
MOMENT TO LOSE The Old No.5’s (independent) *****
Sometimes you come across a record that grabs you by the heart and won’t let go; Moment To Lose from The Old No. 5’s is just such a record. From raw blues to psychedelic sounds and straight up rock, this bad boy has a bit of everything I love.
The Old No.5’s lull you into a mellow place by opening with We’re Here, a gorgeous instrumental that sets the emotional tone for Moment To Lose before they kick it up a notch with tracks like Same Old You and Two By Two. All 6 of these gents are fierce players on their instruments, bashing chords and solos out with a sort of garage band energy that you’re going to like. They’re all over the board, in a really cool way.
Stubey Time in the middle of the disc is an upbeat summertime anthem and What Does That Prove, which ends the record (and gives the album its name) is a stripped down track that leaves you with more questions than you started with- not such a bad thing. The Old No.5’s remind me at times of Sister Hazel from around their Y2K album Fortress, and at times Brock Alexander (vocals, guitar, keys) sounds kind of like Elvis Costello. They play with different textures throughout Moment To Lose and sometimes even between songs, which makes listening an agreeable adventure. There’s a feeling of southern soul, particularly with the rock numbers, that really makes this work. Not sure who plays the guitar solo on Went Out Walking but oh BABY!
Moment To Lose was recorded at Weights & Measures Soundlab in Kansas City, MO, produced by the band, mixed by Brock Alexander and Duane Trower and mastered by Trower. This doesn’t have the sound or feel of a multi-million dollar production extravaganza, and it’s a better record for it. This is a down to earth set of songs with an unpretentious sound that needs to be heard and felt. Remember when rock & roll used to make you really feel something? The Old No.5’s sure do and Moment To Lose is one of those albums that you can get gloriously lost in. www.oldno5s.com
HOT TRACKS: Stubey Time, We’re Here, Went Out Walking