JOHNNY NICHOLAS PRESENTS MOON AND THE STARS: A TRIBUTE TO MOON MULLICAN, VOL. 1 & 2 Various Artists (Valcour Records) *****++
This is a double volume swingin’ tribute to the “king of the honkytonk piano players”- have you heard of him? In the liner notes for Moon And The Stars music journalist Ben Sandmel writes “if you haven’t heard of Moon Mullican, you’ve either heard his music or felt his influence.” As these songs filled my music room it felt like Bob Wills meets Hank Williams and Jerry Lee Lewis… old timey music with spirit and high fidelity verve.
Aubrey “Moon” Mullican (1909-1967) once described his music as “East Texas sock that could make goddamn beer bottles jump on the tables!” Barrelhouse piano, Texas swing, call it what you will; his tunes are aimed at showing you a good time. Former Asleep At The Wheel front man Johnny Nicholas- himself a roots music all-star- pulled together a number of performers like Marcia Ball and Danny Levin to bring these songs to life, and they succeed with room to spare. Modern pop and rock snobs will ignore this; their loss. As Sandmel writes in those liner notes, “the expressive new renditions of (his) songs on this tribute pulse with the same passion and artistic commitment that Mullican brought to the originals. Collectively they touch on every facet of Mullican’s music.”
A Tribute To Moon Mullican sounds historic and fresh at the same time. The spirit at work here recalls Joe Jackson’s jazz tribute album Jumpin’ Jive from 1981. Marcia Ball, who can be heard on Good Times Gonna Roll Again, says “Moon Mullican was the link between the down home Louisiana I grew up with and the Western Swing I came to love in Texas. Moon erased that borderline and made it one big Gulf Coast party sound.” Probably better known amongst piano players, this unsung hero of American roots music is a vital part of a rich tradition. Whether you know these numbers or not, they will feel familiar and they’ll make you feel good.
Moon Mullican’s music runs the gamut from rockin’ rambunctiousness to touching and tender with all kinds of stops in between. Moon And The Stars combines old-timey charm with musical excellence and now that I’ve heard it a few times, I can’t imagine being without it.
HOT TRACKS: When Love Dies (with Kelli Jones & Tif Lamson), You Don’t Have To Be A Baby To Cry (with Johnny Nicholas), Good Times Gonna Roll Again (with Marcia Ball), Seven Nights To Rock (with Steve Riley)
III The Winery Dogs (Three Dogs Music) ****
This unconventional Super Group follows their 2nd album Hot Streak (2015) a scant 8 years later with the obviously titled III. Side projects and other bands have kept them busy but the Dogs are back and barking up a storm with some top shelf rock & roll.
The trio is Ritchie Kotzen (ex- Poison, Mr. Big) on vocals and guitar, Billy Sheehan on bass (Talas, David Lee Roth, Mr. Big) and Mike Portnoy on drums (ex-Dream Theater). When gifted musicians get together it doesn’t always translate into great music, but with the Winery Dogs it does. Their two previous discs, The Winery Dogs (2013) and Hot Streak (2015) remain in regular rotation on my playlist. Kotzen is a versatile rock guitarist with a soulful voice; In his review of this album, bluesrockreview.com’s Fidel Beserra places that voice “between Paul Rodgers and Chris Cornell”. Portnoy is a driving force behind the kit, and as a bassist Sheehan knows when to lay back and when to step out front and go bananas. I have a Steve Vai DVD somewhere when Billy was in his band and on a tune called Jiboom (I think it was) they get into a head-cutting duel where Sheehan easily holds his own… it’s impressive.
I followed Billy Sheehan’s career through Roth’s band and Mr. Big as well, and it was his involvement with The Winery Dogs that urged me to check these guys out. Each member is a technician on their instrument and you’ll see flashes of that here but III, as with the 2 records that came before, is taut, sinewy rock & roll with finesse and impact. ‘Hard rock’ is probably the best label to slap on this baby, anything more than that would be too restrictive. It’s one thing to have chops up the wazoo and another to have great songs… The Winery Dogs can count themselves fortunate to have both.
What impresses about III most is the breadth of the material, from hard charging numbers like album opener Xanadu (NOT a cover of the Rush epic) to the bluesy, mid-tempo Lorelei, the guys prove rather effortlessly that there isn’t anything they can’t do. Yeah they can overplay sometimes but they also have the talent to pull it back and simplify when a track calls for it. Those that already know about The Winery Dogs will fall in love with III straight away, but it’s time everyone else caught up. Their world tour runs through June 27th.
HOT TRACKS: Pharaoh, Xanadu, Lorelei
BLOOD BROTHERS Mike Zito & Albert Castiglia (Gulf Coast Records) *****
What happens when you get two mighty blues guitarists together to make a record? All kinds of awesomeness, that’s what. Produced by Joe Bonamassa and Josh Smith, Blood Brothers is an uncommonly deep and exciting blues record. Mike and Albert don’t just tear it up- though there IS some of that- for fans of blues guitar, it doesn’t get any better than this.
“This album was a blast to make” says Mike Zito, “I’m even more excited to take this music out on the road and perform it for the people.” Albert Castiglia adds that “the making of this album was a ‘brotherhood’ in every sense of the word. Josh Smith and Joe Bonamassa, along with Mike and I, created something incredibly special.” Mike and Albert share guitar and vocal duties, with Douglas Byrkit plucking the fat strings and Matt Johnson laying down the backbeat that makes everything else possible, plus too many special guests to mention. Some original tunes here, plus covers of songs by John Hiatt, Fred James and Tinsley Ellis.
What makes Blood Brothers work so well is the interplay between Zito and Castiglia. “Mike and Albert have a special chemistry together when they plug in and play that few have” says Bonamassa. “They finish each other’s sentences musically. Great tunes, great people, great hang- what’s not to like?!? It was an honor to be involved in this project.” Although this is the blues it’s probably more accurate to cast it as a blues/ rock beast, it’s got that kind of push. With guitar players of Zito’s and Castiglia’s caliber it would’ve been no trouble to keep the pedal to the metal the whole way through but that wouldn’t be nearly as much fun as the variety of material presented here. Besides… you and I know there’s nothing sexier than a grinding, slow blues.
Two fine guitar players and singers, joining forces and doing what they do best makes Blood Brothers one of the must-have blues records of this or any year.
HOT TRACKS: Hey Sweet Mama (written by Mike Zito), A Thousand Heartaches (with Joe Bonamassa), Tooth and Nail (written by Tinsley Ellis), Hill Country Jam
REAL GONE Ally Venable (Ruf Records) *****+
This 23 year old guitar slinger’s 5th album is a stone cold killer. That high, clear voice and vicious guitar chops make Real Gone a rip-roaring Texas blues adventure. None of that “she’s pretty good for a girl” crap please; Ally can flat-out wail with great style and tone, I’d put her up against anybody. Buddy Guy loves her stuff, and that’s a cat who knows his blues.
Produced by Tom Hambridge Real Gone also includes appearances by Joe Bonamassa and Buddy Guy, not that Venable needs any help. She’s one of those rare players that can take her old school influences to create music that gets today’s listeners where they live with songs about living, growing and evolving. With her band- EJ Bedford on bass and drummer Isaac Pulido- laying down righteous grooves she is a real powerhouse, a force to be reckoned with.
So many cool tracks on Real Gone, it’s hard to know where to start. The first single was the title cut, an out and out rocker and Texas Louisiana, a duet with Buddy Guy, was just released last week. Their guitar playing and singing mesh so well here that I hope we hear them do more together. Guy has a keen eye for young talent and she’s been invited to open for him on his farewell tour, including at the “Big Blues Bender” in Vegas September 7-10. Oh to be in the audience on any of those nights for an evening of unforgettable blues!
The main objective of music, particularly the blues, is to move you and make you feel something, and on that score Real Gone gets full marks. As a player Ally is like a cross between Buddy Guy and Stevie Ray with stinging, expressive leads and a vibrato that just hits you right in the heart, and producer Hambridge has pulled exemplary performances from everyone involved. This is an excellent record and I’d put Ally Venable right next to Cristone Kingfish Ingram as evidence that the future of the blues is in great hands.
HOT TRACKS: Two Wrongs, Texas Louisiana (with Buddy Guy), Real Gone