FEELS LIKE FREEDOM Sandy Haley (independent) **** ½
A 5 song E.P. from this Southern California blues singer, a transplant from the soulful city of Detroit. She sang gospel until getting her heart shattered in a breakup, which is good new for us because we get a fine album like Feels Like Freedom to enjoy.
Feels Like Freedom is a soul-drenched, high energy excursion into the blues, Chicago meets Motown. Haley moved out to LA with her band but, in an all too familiar turn, the rigors of the music business took their toll and most of the members returned home to Michigan. Sandy stayed put and assembled another band, one that showcases her fusion of gospel and modern blues. Grammy winner Tony Braunegel produced this baby, and when you sit down for a couple of listens- the album is short at just 5 songs- it dawns on you how unique the blend is. I can feel a bit of country here, especially the cheeky Never Sleep Your Way To The Middle, a high spirited number about boning your married boss.
Sandy describes the album as “a testament to life, living and kicking ass in the 21st century”, and I wouldn’t want to argue the point. The other songs include the title track, an anthem for hard working people that want to celebrate life, love and friendship. Love Me Right Or Cut Me Loose is a personal story, a ballad dedicated to single parents. Dirty Dog is a hard swingin’ bluesy number about the kind of things that- ahem- happen after midnight. Ms. Haley has some serious cred, having shared stages with people like Teresa James, Coco Montoya, Tommy Castro and John Nemeth. While in Detroit as a member of The Rockets, she performed with Joe Walsh, The Beach Boys and Sammy Hagar.
At the end of the day I’d call Feels Like Freedom an uplifting experience with boatloads of soul that just makes you smile and feel glad to be alive- not a bad way to start 2022. www.sandyhaleymusic.com
HOT TRACKS: Feels Like Freedom, Never Sleep Your Way To The Middle
DEVIL MAY CARE Tinsley Ellis (Alligator Records) *****+
If you’re looking for a pure and righteous display of genuine he-man blues guitar playing, this is it. Devil May Care, Tinsley’s 20th album, is bristling with attitude and feral energy- an amalgam of muscular rock ‘n’ roll and hard blues that will light your fire as steam rises from the grooves.
Tinsley was 6 weeks into a tour to support 2020’s Ice Cream In Hell, when COVID said “hold my beer”. As he drove home from Vegas to Atlanta he thought about what to do with the unexpected downtime. He used the break to create new songs and develop further as a song writer; to that end, he began composing on guitars and amps he hadn’t used in decades, and dove into obscure recordings from musical heroes like The Allman Brothers, BB King and Mike Bloomfield, being inspired by them all over again. The result? 200 new songs in just 18 months, “There was a lot of time to experiment” he says. “(The) different gear set-ups inspired the song writing.”
Tinsley then whittled that list down to 10 songs and hit Rock House Studio in Franklin, Tennessee with producer/ keyboardist Kevin McKendree to record Devil May Care which Ellis says “is as much for the fans as it is for me.” Fans of SRV’s style of take-no-prisoners guitar playing will take to this disc like a duck to water. I’m hearing echoes of ZZ Top (Slow Train To Hell) and Hendrix (28 Days, Step Up), with emotionally charged guitar solos, which is just how blues should be. If slow burning blues is your thing, try the aforementioned Slow Train To Hell (think Blue Jean Blues) or the semi-orgasmic Don’t Bury Our Love.
Tinsley Ellis always plays and sings with grit, soul and passion but there’s magic (or is that voodoo?) at work on Devil May Care. As stunning as past efforts have been, this is proof that the man just keeps getting better. There is a tour booked, and it’s about time. As Tinsley himself says “It’s been a long 18 months, and now people are ready to have some fun.” I can’t imagine there’ll be many other blues records in 2022 as fierce or potent as this.
HOT TRACKS: Don’t Burry Our Love, 28 Days, Right Down The Drain
SAVAGE’S LIFE The Sugar Roots (Lightning In A Bottle Records) *****++
I thought the new Tinsley Ellis would be tough to match, then I put this on. The Sugar Roots formed just last year in Portland and this is their debut. Savage’s Life is the blues equivalent of what I call ‘dirt-bag rock ‘n’ roll’; nasty, greasy, full of attitude and utterly unforgettable. Equal parts BB King, Fabulous Thunderbirds and Elvin Bishop, this is a soulful, exciting blues trip that must not be missed.
You can talk about places like Chicago, but the Pacific Northwest blues scene is loaded to the nuts with stunning talent. The Sugar Roots were founded by frontman Chad Rupp (vocals, guitar, harp and piano), each players’ immersion in that scene is reflected in every soulful, sophisticated track here, and some of Portland’s legends pitched in to bring Savage’s Life to its full realization. “All the classic blues greats have played a part in what I play” Chad says, “however my most revered influences are my Portland professors. The classroom has always been their live performances in local venues. Jim Mesi, Paul deLay, Lloyd Jones, Norman Sylvester, DK Stewart, Curtis Salgado, Duffy Bishop were the faculty and remain so.”
The horns on numbers like Sweet Lovin’ Daddy bring an uptown swing element to this shindig, then you get a cut like 1 4 5 Boogie that’s just a glorious straight up sweat soaked blues party, as much fun to listen to as I’m sure it was for the guys to play. Maybe one way to get at the irresistible energy on display with Savage’s Life is George Thorogood meets The Powder Blues Band. They even have the cheek to do a slinky remake of Steve Miller’s Rock’n Me that will delightfully surprise you.
Often times it will take a band a couple of records or so to get their feet under them, but The Sugar Roots are firing on all cylinders right out of the gate. The level of swagger and confidence here is as joyously mind-boggling as it is delicious. Rupp is an excellent blues singer and there’s zero filler on Savage’s Life. This is outstanding and THEN some. https://m.facebook.com/Sugar-Roots-536959379713446/
HOT TRACKS: Something Wicked This Way Comes, 1 4 5 Boogie, Rock’n Me
BIG MAN Big Llou Johnson (GoldenVoice Audio Recordings) *****
With a big, smooth voice, Big Llou makes Isaac Hayes sound like Pee Wee Herman. Big Man is the new contemporary blues album for this award winning actor, voice over artist and producer. If you listen to BB King’s Bluesville on Sirius XM, he’s the guy that does what we in the radio biz call ‘splitters’. His deep, sultry voice pulls you in, and the seriously excellent playing from all involved keep you there.
Big Llou’s first record They Call Me Big Lou earned him a Blues Music Award for Best New Artist, and Big Man proves that it was no fluke. This new one has the sophisticated vibe of his hometown of Chicago, a raw blues feeling expressed with jazz style and a Memphis kind of feel, with a Blues Brothers wink and a smile. The press info describes him as “a renaissance singer/ songwriter”, which leads me to believe these songs come from his heart and mind. Johnson is a singer who knows who he is, that comes across with a chill confidence in that big, wonderfully deep voice. No shouting here, this is pretty smooth stuff with self assurance that would sound braggadocios from anyone else.
Big Man was produced by Big Llou with Keith Stewart and it sounds big, bold and juicy… or, if you prefer, ‘rich’. Too many musicians involved to list here, but what they’ve done together is pretty damn wonderful. Johnson’s voice is almost more of a soul croon but it works equally well in this blues context, implying an intimacy you can’t ignore. I love how effortless and natural it feels- even when he’s reaching for the emotional peak of a song he doesn’t need to strain to get there; he sees the notes and just calmly goes over and grabs them, no muss no fuss.
Big Man makes a deep and immediate impression, feeling accessible even on the first spin, but I’m looking forward to a few more plays to hear what secrets may be laying just below the surface. Great songs, top notch players, a once in a generation voice and gorgeous production make this one for the ages. www.bigllou.com
HOT TRACKS: Lightning Strikes, Let’s Misbehave, Stuff To Do
THERE’S SOMETHING ABOUT THE NIGHT Scott Ellison (Liberation Hall) ****
Some Tulsa style blues for you here. There’s Something About The Night is Ellison’s 13th album, ranging from Chicago-meets-Texas shuffles to full tilt rockin’ blues workouts. There’s plenty happening here to get excited about.
Many artists have used the COVID lockdown to their creative advantage, and Scott Ellison is no exception. Used to wall-to-wall touring he had to stop and refocus, fine tuning every aspect of his creative process to create what is being hailed as the most focused album of his career. “This is the first time I didn’t have to go through a stop-start-stop recording process” Scott notes. “I would get up at 5:30 or 6 in the morning and just work on songs. Being forced off the road might have been the best thing that’s ever happened to me from a creative standpoint.”
There’s Something About The Night features Ellison’s primary backing and touring band along with an array of Los Angeles all-stars including members of Eric Clapton’s band, Albert Lee’s band and others. He co-wrote 10 of the album’s tracks with Michael Price, who penned Ain’t No Love In The Heart Of The City for Bobby “Blue” Bland, so he’s got some seriously heavy mojo working in his corner. More than just the blues, this disc is an array of styles woven together to make a passionate and soulful statement.
Scott Ellison is a solid blues singer, somewhere between pre-mellow Clapton and maybe Duke Robillard. As a guitarist his lead breaks have a Stevie Ray quality in that you can feel him really leaning into it to squeeze every ounce of passion and feeling he can from the notes he chooses. A ton of people were involved on the playing side of TSATN but you might recognize people like the late Jamie Oldaker on drums (early 80’s Clapton) as well as David Teagarden, each supple groove masters in their own right. Look up the credits on this record, it just might make your head spin.
The songs on There’s Something About The Night are very well played but not preciously so; there’s plenty of grit, attitude and grind at play over these 14 tracks. This is a pretty great Saturday night album, make sure you turn it up so the neighbours can hear it too. www.scottellisonband.com
HOT TRACKS: Meat And Potatoes, Blowin’ Like A Hurricane, Good Year For The Blues
ONCE IN A BLUE MOON Luther “Guitar Junior” Johnson (Crossroad Blues Media) *** ½
A live record here from this veteran blues journeyman who spent almost a decade in Muddy Waters’ band after he signed on in 1972, before relocating to Boston and resuming his solo career in 1980. Once In A Blue Moon finds Luther and his band, The Magic Rockers, casting their spell from the stage at The Hideaway Café in St. Petersburgh, Florida. This is a special guided tour through his 6-plus decades of playing and singing real deal authentic Chicago blues; a must have for any blues fan.
Once In A Blue Moon was recorded on Halloween night of 2020 during the first full blue moon in 75 years. The album is decently recorded but it has a scruffy sound, giving it the patina that most of your favourite live blues albums either have or aspire to. Many of these 8 tracks are blues standards you’re no doubt familiar with and songs Johnson has played on stage hundreds of times over the years including Hoochie Coochie Man, Mean Old World and CC Rider along with Fever, a song Peggy Lee had a hit with in 1958. This is the sound of a band moving and grooving, relaxed and confident that the audience is picking up what they’re laying down through some extended workouts. The audience noise is buried in the mix, so it doesn’t distract from what’s important; the music.
Once In A Blue Moon was engineered by Pat Herlehy and Mike Shivers, produced by Mike along with Luther Johnson himself as ‘executive producer’. Herlehy is also the sax player in the band, and his solos are a definite highlight of the disc. While I enjoy real hard blues where all the players are leaning hard and going for broke at every turn as fire shoots from their fingertips, this one is the opposite; fine playing too but laid back with a seductive swing that makes this kind of music popular late on a Saturday night if you know what I mean- and I think you do. It also doesn’t hurt that Luther was born in Itta Bena, Mississippi; same area BB King was from.
At 82 (turning 83 April 11th) Luther still has a rich singing voice and he can still play that Strat too. He has surrounded himself with talented players who deliver the blues with feeling and respect. Once In A Blue Moon won’t set the world on fire, but it’s a snapshot of living blues history and a fine way to spend the evening. www.lutherguitarjuniorjohnson.com
HOT TRACKS: Hoochie Coochie Man/ I’m A Man, Stealing Chickens, CC Rider