SUNDANCER Will James (independent/ bandcamp) ****
One word I seldom use to describe a blues album is ‘suave’, but that sums up the new Will James. A cross between the blues and a cool jazz sensibility, Sundancer caught me off guard. Infectious elements of jazz, soul and rock & roll 60’s and 70’s style, it’s refreshing.
James has a raw, soulful voice that’s a thoughtful counterpoint to his smooth guitar playing style and the relaxed, groovy feel of Sundancer. He’s an up and comer on the UK blues scene with a unique sound and feel that puts him ahead of the pack. Produced by John Wooler and recorded at Steakhouse Studios in Los Angeles, this is a great sounding record. “I feel very privileged to be brought over to the U.S. to make this (album) with such legends of music world” Will says, “and I’m over the moon with the results.” Admittedly I don’t recognize the names of most of the guys but I gotta believe they’re LA session cats- and they can play.
The bio says Will James hails from the south of England, but Sundancer feels like it came from a guy on this side of the pond. There’s a relaxed ‘southernness’ over some chill Bo Diddley-style grooves festooned with greasy slide that just gets to me. James’s vocals are so relaxed it’s almost as if he’s just talking, but not quite. I confess to having some trouble zeroing in on the lyrics to these 10 tracks because, at some point during every song it seems as though the music just gently lifts me up and carries me away. It’s an odd feeling, but an enjoyable one.
No pounding riffs or tortured, bent-note solos here, not really, except the title number… James’s light jazz-like touch on the guitar is relaxing and inspiring at the same time. The funk and soul can be felt throughout, gently stirred by the blues. Yep- Sundancer is mighty fine company.
HOT TRACKS: Shadowman, Prisoner, Q Blues
PAINTING THE STARS The LH Express (independent) ****
This is the 4th album for this Ottawa band, formerly known as “The Lucas Haneman Express”. Painting The Stars is the forceful, bluesy sound of a quartet coming out of lockdown with something to prove, a burst of light and optimism we can really use.
The band is Lucas Haneman on vocals and guitar, Martin Newman on bass, with new drummer Valera Negovora bring fresh energy to the band. Megan Laurence, the “L” of The LH Express, steps up as lead vocalist for half of the record and sings her ass off. “After almost three years of silence in our industry, where many musicians couldn’t work, Painting Stars is an album where every member in our band has something to say and something to prove” Laurence says. “The LH Express is back with a renewed energy and a positive sound we can’t wait to share with the world.” This band is beyond ready to get rolling.
Lots of great blues textures across Painting The Stars and, as good as Lucas is on the mic, I find Megan’s vocals more compelling and powerful. The production is nice and clean, everyone playing well together without stepping on each other’s toes. When I’m not zeroing in on a vocal or guitar solo I get drawn into Negovora’s drumming; driving without being obnoxious, yet with a relaxed feel that swings and really suits the music. As someone that used to play I appreciate it.
Lucas Haneman is proud of what the band has accomplished with Painting The Stars and rightly so. “(This) is The LH Express putting everything on the table with our hearts on our sleeves” he says. “Megan steps forward into the light on this album showing the world that she is a force to be reckoned with, and the rest of the band is right there alongside us.” Painting The Stars is an ebullient, uplifting album that I will listen to often.
HOT TRACKS: Hot Minute, Getaway, Rising From The Dead
EXORCIST Selwyn Birchwood (Alligator) *****
Electrifying, terrifying… that’s Selwyn Birchwood’s new record. Exorcist manages to take many blue traditions and spin them into something new that keeps touch with the past even as Birchwood has his eye on the future. This Florida bluesman calls what he does “Electric Swamp Funkin’ Blues”, a heady blend of deep blues, blistering psychedelic rock, booty shaking funk and sweet southern soul… don’t say you haven’t been warned.
Three things combine to make Exorcist an example of blues excellence; Selwyn’s rich baritone voice, instinctive guitar playing, often subtle and thrilling at once, and a serious gift for songwriting. More than just “I done woke up this morning” lyrics- not that there’s anything wrong with that- Birchwood packs emotional wallop into a song like Horns Below Her Halo about love gone wrong. And you gotta love a guy that writes stuff like “I love you baby like the church loves money”. “My goal is to be sure you cannot listen passively” he says. “We’re going to make you dance, and we’re going to make you think.”
Born in Orlando in 1985, Selwyn first picked up the guitar at 13 and was soon playing along to songs on the radio. The grunge and hip-hop of the time didn’t move him but discovering Hendrix was revelatory. “He was larger than life- what he did was mind blowing” Selwyn says. If you listen to Hendrix at the core of what he did was the blues, so it only makes sense that an acolyte like Selwyn Birchwood would pick that up and run with it. Exorcist is his 4th album for Alligator, 6th overall-
a sweet mix of mainly deep blues colored by southern soul.
Recorded in Florida and produced by Tom Hambridge, Exorcist is 13 amazingly detailed songs in stunning technicolor; vivid and soulful sonic explorations. He is able to recall the spirit of BB King, Freddie King and yes, even Hendrix when the occasion calls for it. This is a blues record that is so much more than a history lesson- the music is living, breathing, growing and changing… and exciting. Selwyn Birchwood has come out of the pandemic loaded for bear with an album that is sure to turn heads. If you love the blues you’re gonna love this.
HOT TRACKS: Swim At Your Own Risk, Horns Below Her Halo, Ila-View
ATTITUDE Soulful Femme (independent) *** ½
Soulful Femme is the duo of Stevee Wellons and Cheryl Rinovato, seasoned performers in their own right who found an undeniable chemistry when they came together. Attitude is more jazz with a funk backbone as anything but these 11 tracks cross many genres; blues, rock, reggae, and soul. Cheryl’s guitar style works well with Stevee’s voice on these well-written tunes.
“My mother played piano and sang for the church as a teen” Wellons recalls. “She wanted me to take care of myself and love myself, and be proud of who I am.” Of Attitude, Rinovato says the plan here was “to make music that would connect with a live audience while also conveying a definitive passion and purpose”, and this is the vibe that informs much of the album itself. They’re no spring chickens either; “(Cheryl and I) are women of a certain age who aren’t quite ready to hang up their instruments” Stevee says. “We have lots to say and we’re determined to say it in the here and now!” This particular blend of music they play together is richer because of that, with a nuance and depth that younger artists can only dream of.
Attitude includes some notable guest shots, including guitars from producer Albert Castiglia on Not Like You, and the legendary Tommy Castro plays on Talkin’ Out Loud And Sayin’ Nothing. Insane Asylum features a duet with Kevin Burt. With Castiglia as producer I was expecting something much bluesier (I have a fistful of his records) so my first spin of Attitude was mainly me adjusting expectations, but on the 2nd time through I easily found the thread and was able to relax and really enjoy it. The record was recorded at Fat Rabbit Studios in New Jersey and Skydog Studios in Pittsburgh, produced by Albert Castiglia and engineered by Grammy nominated Dave Gross. The instruments are well balanced with vocals in the right spot in the mix, but I wish the sound was brighter, sharper and more detailed overall.
Attitude may not be the greatest thing since sliced bread, but it has plenty of charm to show you a good time.
HOT TRACKS: Not Like You (with Albert Castiglia), Time To Walk, Breathe Again
LIFE DON’T MISS NOBODY Tracy Nelson (BMG) ****+
This is the first album in over 10 years for a roots singer Etta James once called “a bad white girl”. Life Don’t Miss Nobody is a powerful combination of blues power and gospel fervor, a mix of new stuff and old favorites Tracy has been wanting to record for years. “I’ve been wanting to do every one of these songs for a really long time” she says. “I wanted to get a little bit of everything, all the kinds of music that I love.” You and I are all the richer for it.
Life Don’t Miss Nobody is characterized as “the album of a lifetime, a musical self-portrait spanning her entire career.” You’ll recognize some of the songs, others will be new to you, and all of them pack a powerful emotional punch. Tracy began in the 60’s as a guitar-picking Wisconsin teen playing coffee houses. She has spent a six decade career singing the blues, country, New Orleans R&B and gospel, all of which comes together on her new record.
Joining Ms. Nelson here are a number of her favorite musical friends; Willie Nelson, Charlie Musselwhite, Irma Thomas, Marcia Ball, Jontavious Willis, Mickey Raphael and Terry Hanck. Life Don’t Miss Nobody was produced by Roger Alan Nichols along with Tracy, and recorded in Nashville as well as several other studios. “I cannot say enough about what a gem Roger Nichols is” Tracy says. “He’s a brilliant engineer as well as musician. As a producer he brings not only superb technical expertise but great insight, patience, and JUST the right amount of direction.” The care and confidence of all involved is evident in every detail.
As a singer Tracy reminds me of Dalannah Gail Bowen from Vancouver; when she opens her mouth to deliver a lyric you get the feeling that she’s lived it. While many of these songs were written by other people, tracks like Hard Times by Stephen Foster or Sonny Boy Williamson’s Your Funeral And My Trial, they feel as if they’re coming directly from her soul. Life Don’t Miss Nobody is rich, deep and invigorating in ways that few other records ever are.
HOT TRACKS: Life Don’t Miss Nobody, Honky Tonkin’ (with Willie Nelson), Hard Times (solo version)
CLASSIC ALBUM REVIEW
THICK AS THIEVES Trooper (MCA) RELEASED: June 19th, 1978
This is the 4th of 9 studio albums for Trooper, arguably the hardest working band in Canada. Thick As Thieves is one of those records where the stars lined up; great songs, terrific production, international stardom seemed all but inevitable- or so I thought.
The first time I met singer Ra McGuire was at a rock station in Kamloops in the early 90’s. As he signed my copy of this record I told him that I knew if Thick As Thieves didn’t break them worldwide, nothing would. It was huge in Canada, going platinum on the strength of singles like Round Round We Go and Raise A Little Hell, their only successful U.S. single. Randy Bachman produced Trooper’s first 3 albums and he’s listed as producer here, but that wasn’t really the case.
As Ra told me in a 2010; “The process of making ‘Thick as Thieves’ was really wonderful and at that point Randy had really backed off in his role as ‘Dad’ to us. We knew what all the knobs were, by that time we had kind of figured out the process. We put together some tricks of our own. We understood how to use the recording studio to make the noises that we wanted to make. It was partly Randy stepping back, in some cases way back and leaving at 6 o’clock and us staying until 3 in the morning. We felt that we deserved whole production credit on that record. It was important to us that our contribution to the record be acknowledged somewhere. We were actually promised that co-production credit, saw it on the album cover in Los Angeles when we were there, and when the album came out it was gone.”
What makes Thieves great is its depth; solid singles plus album cuts that are more than just filler. The angry kiss-off of Say Goodnight, the degenerate swagger of Gambler (“he loses what he wants and wins what he needs) and the mid-tempo lament of No Fun Being Alone… perhaps other than Raise A Little Hell, those are the songs I would’ve picked as singles, and I’ve played them all many times on my various radio shows over the decades.
Trooper made some fine albums over their 16-year recording career, powered by various rhythm sections and led by Ra McGuire’s soulful voice with Brian Smith’s inventive guitar licks. Thick As Thieves may not have turned out to be the planet killer I thought it deserved to be, lost in the punk and New Wave movements of the day perhaps- but it remains an utterly fantastic record.
HOT TRACKS: No Fun Being Alone, Say Goodnight, Raise A Little Hell