TALKIN’ ABOUT Waterstreet Blues Band (independent) ****
If I read their website correctly, this is Waterstreet Blues Band’s 3rd album. Talkin’ About is definitely the blues, but it jumps and swings too with a gritty, rootsy vibe that covers a lot of territory. A mix of originals with covers of tunes by Samantha Fish and Tom Waits plus a bonus holiday track, this definitely a record you can party to.
Talkin’ About takes a look at the blues from a few different perspectives with a joyous, street-hardened sound and delivery, a group of people playing like they’re good and they know it too. Their blues roots run deep and you can feel that. You should get to know their names too; Rob Deyman on guitars and background vocals, Paul Sapounzi on bass and vocals, Silvia Dee on keys, accordion and vocals, Johnny Sauder on drums and background vocals, and Chris “Junior” Malleck on harp. They’ve played a boatload of festivals and have shared stages with people like Marcia Ball, Big Dave McLean, Maria Muldaur and Jack DeKeyzer, so they’ve been keeping some fine company.
On Talkin’ About Waterstreet Blues Band achieves an effortless vintage grace without having it sound like an affectation, and it’s a tip of the hat that their own songs mingle so comfortably with Samantha Fish’s Miles To Go and Temptation by Tom Waits. They’re ready to party right out of the gate with the title cut that opens the disc but if you’re of a mind to throttle back, check out the spooky vibe of Mean Vicious Woman.
Not sure who produced Talkin’ About but I like the rough and tumble vibe that matches so well with the players themselves. Nothing is overly precious here; this is the sound of five talented musicians strapping up and going for broke. Some might prefer a cleaner, more precise sound- and I know I whine about that from time to time on the occasional release- but I can’t imagine this album sounding any other way than exactly how it does. Talkin’ About has a gritty suaveness that’s hard to resist. www.waterstreetband.com
HOT TRACKS: Talkin’ About, Riverside Child, Temptation
BLUES SHACK Mandy Marylane (Y&T Music) *** ½
Here is a five song E.P. from this Miami-based singer, new interpretations of classic blues, gospel and country numbers. There’s a high, lonesome quality to Blues Shack that will have you feeling the spirits of Hank Williams, Johnny Cash and Jimmy Reed. My biggest beef is that this is just an E.P. instead of a full length album.
Blues Shack was produced by Fernando Perdormo, who had definite (and right on) ideas on how Mandy should sound. It’s partly the material and partly Ms. Marylane’s vocals along with Fernando’s musicianship that create an irresistible almost spooky vibe. I can’t speak to Mandy’s own compositions as these are covers, but there is something about how all of this sounds, an almost out of time late 60’s psychedelic feel on the blues that would make them perfect for a Quentin Tarantino film; an observation I’ve made previously about other artists.
It’s unlikely that you’ll hear any of these songs on traditional radio, those stations owned by conglomerates like I Heart Radio, Clear Channel, Rogers, Stingray and Bell don’t have the balls for musical adventure. Blues Shack is something you’ll have to track down via Mandy’s website or the label website, or internet stations like www.epic-radio.com, where you’ll certainly hear this stuff on my radio shows. This is captivating work. www.mandy.com
HOT TRACKS: Devil’s Got The Blues, Drunkard’s Blues
OUTSIDE THE BOX Mike Nagoda (independent) ***
It’s the sophomore release for this disabled, openly gay Toronto blues and roots musician. While the production on Outside The Box is a tad weak its execution and ideas are revolutionary, making it worth your attention.
Born with cerebral palsy, Mike struggled to learn to play guitar in the conventional way until he discovered Toronto bluesman Brian Cober, who invented the art of double slide guitar in 1971. Nagoda approached him about teaching him this technique, and they remained friends until Brian’s passing in 2016. And the only reason for mentioning Mike’s gayness off the top is that he deals with it directly in his music. “There are only a handful of out, proud, openly queer male performers in the blues- and I’m one of them!” he says. “I don’t know how many of us talk about queer, same gender relationships among men in our lyrics. I really wanted to change that with this record, and finally start to give queer men a voice and visibility through telling my own story, and hopefully open the door for queer men to start telling our stories in the blues.”
Outside The Box was produced by Chris Birkett (Buffy Saint-Marie, Sinead O’Connor) with grooves supplied by Mike and the Spectrum Blues Band; Nagoda- vocals, Hammond organ, acoustic and electric double slide guitar… Peter Johnston- electric guitar… Anthony D’Allessandro- acoustic & electric piano… D’Arcy Cain- bass… Jeremy Ronson- drums & percussion. The fact that the songs are about gay characters is beside the point; after all aren’t all blues songs about relationships of some kind? When I say the production is ‘a tad weak’ I mean I wish it was more musically aggressive. The drums are recorded rather timidly and at times come across like a programmed drum machine… but on the flipside there’s some mighty tasty slide happening too.
The songs themselves tell some interesting stories to say the least. He’s My Man opens the record loud and proud, Kingdom Of Heaven is a warning about white supremacy, the title song (Mike says it’s his most personal) tells about him falling away from his Catholic upbringing, and O, Maximus! is a fictional story set in ancient Rome and a think piece about queer oppression. Not exactly your average blues album.
Outside The Box is an engaging record, a blues journey that brings some new elements to the party- it’s about time. www.mikenagoda.com
HOT TRACKS: O, Maximus!, Outside The Box, Conquistador
EVERYTHING IS ON FIRE The Honeyrunners (Gypsy Soul Records) ****+
Here is the debut for these Toronto-based folk rockers. Everything Is On Fire, out since November, takes dead aim at our cultural apathy- a sentiment that everything is always on fire, with nothing to do but sit back and watch. The chorus of the title track sums up the band’s philosophy; “let it burn/ it’s the ashes that I admire.”
Written by pianist/ lead singer Dan Dwoskin and engineer/ producer/ bassist/ singer Guillermo Subauste, Everything Is On Fire is a response to the public outpouring of anxiety and depression fueled by our times. “We write songs for the times we need them” Dan says. “This record was born of the love, fear and insecurity of being a new father”- that overwhelming feeling I have not known in a few decades now.
As for the sonic palate on display here, with a band name like ‘The Honeyrunners’ I expected straight up blues. “We anchored the tracks with a New Orleans sensibility, using pocket rhythms, countless styles of keys, and punchy horns to bring the songs to life” Guillermo notes. “The cherry is a quilt of guitar hooks, a choir’s worth of harmonies, and soulful lead vocals by Dan.” While there is satisfaction in hearing more or less what you’re expecting, being surprised like this is even more delightful.
Putting together Everything On Fire was hardly a quick, hit-and-run exercise. “(It) was years in the making, honed during a gap between the original Honeyrunners roster and a new lineup of musicians joining the band between 2018 and 2020” Dwoskin says. “We started with 25 songs and trimmed it down to nine, crafting a front-to-back listen with a potent story.” In a world where pop music is little more than aural wallpaper (said the grumpy old album reviewer), seeing and hearing this kind of commitment to craft and intent is a gust of fresh air.
A Canadian take on southern Americana, Everything Is On Fire is a mix of folk, pop and blues wrapped up in soulful grooves. This is one of those records that you’re going to have crawl right inside of to really appreciate the gifts it offers. www.honeyrunners.com
HOT TRACKS: Run & Hide, Ghosts, What Are You Scared Of?
DIGGING IN JOHN’S BACKYARD Grant Dermody & Frank Fotusky (independent) ****
This is some stark, intimate acoustic blues. Grant Dermody is a modern master of blues harmonica, and Frank Fotusky is a renowned acoustic blues guitarist. Digging In John’s Backyard pays tribute to Virginia-bred country blues guitarist and master of the Piedmont style John Jackson, who knew and greatly influenced Grant and Frank before he passed in 2002. This is some fine back porch blues.
Dermody and Fotusky, while being friends with Jackson, didn’t actually meet until after the late bluesman’s death. John was more than just a musical mentor to Frank, he impressed upon him the great human quality of kindness. Grant and Frank finally decided to take what they do individually and get together as a duo to honor the man that started them on their lifelong journey into the blues. They’ve dug deep here and keep discovering what music can be when you play it to honor its traditions.
Digging In John’s Backyard is as elemental as the blues gets; just voice, guitar and blues harp. Nothing fancy in the production, no overdubs, it just sounds like a couple guys sitting around a mic and going through a pile of blues numbers they really dig. I’m not entirely sure what Jackson’s connection is to these songs, but blue aficionados will recognize some of the tunes as having been played by Sonny Boy Williamson, Charlie Patton, Skip James and The Rev. Gary Davis. Whether you are actually familiar with these songs is entirely beside the point. Grant and Frank prove to be decent vocalists which suits the music well- nothing fancy, just 2 guys singin’.
Frank Fotusky’s finger picking does most of the musical heavy lifting, with Grant’s harp providing the right spice to bring this up a notch or two. Thanks to their performances and the simplicity of the production, when you put on Digging In John’s Backyard it’s quite easy to close your eyes and imagine that the guys are in the room with you as they play. There’s some great musical storytelling going here that you’ll enjoy. www.frankfotusky.tripod.com
HOT TRACKS: Hey Hey Daddy Blues, Boats Up River, Seattle Rainy Day Blues
MODERN NOSTALGIA Hughes Taylor (The Bent Note) *** ¾
If you’re looking for truth in advertising, the title of this record fits the bill. In Modern Nostalgia Macon Georgia’s Hughes Taylor puts his own spin on 21st century blues, weaving the influences of Hendrix and Clapton with elements of Muscle Shoals, Stax and vintage Southern Rock. It’s a muscular take on the blues with lots of soul.
“When I was 13 or 14 a friend of my father turned me on to Clapton” Hughes says. “I had already been messing around with basic chords on the guitar for a few years at that point, but once I heard that I dove into the blues and there was no turning back.” He explains the album title referring to “tapping into classic styles but doing it in a modern way”, so while he has respect for blues traditions he doesn’t necessarily feel bound by them.
Modern Nostalgia was produced by Hughes Taylor and he has a solid grasp on how to make a sonically balanced record, though the drums could’ve been ballsier. As a musician he’s adept at self- editing while he plays; there are no wasted notes and yet MN has a loose and casual feel. His solos, brief and to the point, are also passionate with a blazing technique that reminds me of some of Jeff Healey’s early stuff. No doubt he’s channeling heroes like Clapton when he leans back, closes his eyes and just lets ‘er rip.
Modern Nostalgia is Taylor’s 4th solo album, leading me to think “why have I never heard of this guy before?” but like I’ve said before, there’s so much music out there I just can’t hear it all. The disc plays out like a rewrite of what the blues has been over the last 4 or 5 decades with a palpable reverence to the past. The last time I chatted with Alligator Records founder Bruce Iglauer we talked about how blues might move into the future and still thrive… Hughes Taylor is one of the artists that will keep this music exciting for the generations coming up behind us. www.hughestaylormusic.com
HOT TRACKS: Highwaymen, Treat Me Right, Trouble