KEEP ON PUSHIN’ Johnny Wheels & The Swamp Donkeys (Lightning In A Bottle)
This is a soulful sound from The Pacific Northwest. Though the band is often tagged as ‘blues’, Keep On Pushin’ has a much broader mandate as they blend R&B, soul, jazz, funk and rock under a blues umbrella. Led by singer/ songwriter/ harmonica player Johnny Wheels (Kennicott) their lively and soulful sound is endlessly engaging.
Why “Wheels”? Johnny broke his neck in a childhood accident, leaving him paralyzed from the chest down. “The days of after school football practice were definitely over” he says. Inspired by his musician father, who died when Johnny was just 6 Wheels, through trial and error, learned how to manipulate his paralyzed diaphragm to sing and blow harp. He’s a fine blues singer, and his harmonica playing is major league.
Johnny Wheels & The Swamp Donkeys hail collectively from Oregon, Texas and California. The songs on Keep On Pushin’ were written by Johnny, guitarist Brandon Logan and bassist Taylor Frasier, with Doug Noyle (drums) and Michael Rabe (vocals, guitar) filling out the rest of the group. Kudos to the band and co-producer Jimi Bott for an excellent well rounded sound. There’s some sweet blues here, along with southern soul grooves and smokin’ rock shuffles that would be a blast to hear live. The Swamp Donkeys have shared stages with artists like Curtis Salgado, Cheap Trick and Jim Belushi, so they can hold their own with the big dogs. They were even finalists on the 2020 International Blues Challenge in Memphis.
With a band name like ‘Johnny Wheels & The Swamp Donkeys’ you’d be forgiven for expecting a sound more rough and tumble than what we have here. Keep On Pushin’ is a smooth but not overly slick blend of blues and southern soul with horn charts adding real punch to numbers like The Fall. Yep- this is a real beauty.
HOT TRACKS: On The Run, The Fall, Time To Bail (Keep On Pushin ‘)
SHADES OF BLUE Terry Donaghue (independent) ***
An easygoing set of blues from this Toronto based artist. Shades Of Blue is 13 original songs that cover an array of styles within what we think of as the blues. With some help from a number of talented friends, Terry has every reason to be well pleased with his new disc.
Donaghue began playing music in his teens, in the 60’s, first playing folk and bluegrass on the banjo before taking up the guitar then the mandolin. He’s been writing songs in various styles for the last 20 years or so, and of Shades Of Blue he says “I’m particularly proud of this recording from the quality and range of the songwriting to the terrific musical talent that brings the songs to another level. I think it’s the best work I’ve done.”
Terry mentions the ‘terrific musical talent’, and it’s a testament to his ability as a songwriter that he was able to enlist the likes of Al Cross, Rick Fines, Paul Reddick and Jenie Thai. There’s a sparse beauty to the sound of this record, which is largely an acoustic affair. Inspired in his youth by the country blues of Sonny Terry & Brownie McGee and Lead Belly during the 60’s folk revival, Donaghue was also moved by the electric blues of Howlin’ Wolf, BB King, John Lee Hooker Buddy Guy and Paul Butterfield. The influence of those electric artists is more subtle here, but if you listen closely you can hear it and feel it.
Shades Of Blue is mostly quiet and contemplative… songs like I Need A Bed are prayer and meditation. If the album has a weakness it’s not in the writing or instrumental performances but Terry’s singing. He doesn’t have a very strong voice and is what a talent show judge might call “pitchy”. Having said that, his less than sterling vocal technique does lend the songs a vulnerability they might not otherwise have. Six of one, half dozen of the other as they say.
Great songwriting and fine instrumental performances, somewhat iffy vocals; that sums up Shades Of Blue for me… but as Meat Loaf once said, “two out of three ain’t bad.”
HOT TRACKS: The Well, I Need A Bed, Don’t Need No Sugar
ALIVE Robin McAuley (Frontiers) ****
Journeyman hard rock from an indestructible voice. Alive is the new solo album from McAuley, following 2 quite spectacular discs from super-group Black Swan. This rocks even harder than 2020’s Shake The World… these riffs with that voice are an unforgettable combination.
Known most recently for his work with Black Swan with Reb Beach, Jeff Pilson and Matt Starr, Robin is best known for MSG, The McAuley Schenker Group with guitarist Michael Schenker. That connection is appropo as Alive reminds me quite a bit of classic Scorpions, with McAuley’s voice sounding rather like Klaus Meine for much of this record. The songs are energetic and propulsive, magnificently produced by Alessandro DelVecchio, who also plays bass and keys as he has on so many other albums for this label. Joining them in the studio for this are guitarist Andrea Seveso (whose bluesy acrobatics make these songs particularly memorable) and drummer Nicholas Papapicco, and all together they make the most excellent racket.
Robin McAuley is widely recognized as one of the great singers of hard rock’s golden age, and for that alone we should be grateful for this powerful new album. I love Robin’s voice- always have- and having a guitar player of Seveso by his side certainly doesn’t hurt. While many derisively look on the 80’s music scene as a time of ‘corporate rock’ (yeah, I was one of those guys too), Alive reminds us of that time while also recalling what was so great about hard rock then; guitarists like Eddie Van Halen and Randy Rhodes inspired other players to reach higher,
The bluster and head-banging energy of Alive is offset by mid-tempo ballads like Can’t Go On so it’s not pedal to the metal all the way through- that would be exhausting! The question here is quite simple, really… do you enjoy anthemic hard rock songs? If the answer is “yes”, then Robin McAuley’s Alive absolutely belongs in your collection and/or on your playlist.
HOT TRACKS: Alive, The Endless Mile, Stronger Than Before
VOLITION LIVE Harlem Lake (independent) ****+
Nothing beats the raw energy of live blues, and when it comes to live blues, there aren’t many who can top Harlem Lake’s Volition Live. The group is a scant 4 & ½ years old, but they play together like they’ve been doing it for decades- the results are spellbinding.
Volition Live includes 6 numbers from their debut A Fool’s Paradise Vol.1, covers and a new original, all recorded live. The band recorded 2 shows last year for this; a mainstage performance at Culemborg Blues and a theatre show at Better Get Hit Festival. The best of both worlds made the cut for Volition Live, a successful marriage of the ecstatic energy from the festival stage as well as the honest focus of a theater performance. The covers include The Letter, Got To Get Better In A Little While, Beware and Don’t Change Horses. It’s an engaging mix of material.
Harlem Lake are an excellent band live with an impressive sense of groove- they really know how to get down… but the real magic here is singer Janne Timmer whose passionate delivery is jaw dropping. Rock n Force’s review of their debut is applicable to Volition Live too; “Through rock, blues and soul, Harlem Lake shows incredible depth and a feeling of perfect fluidity, all guided by the intense and powerful voice of their singer. Monumental.” Now WHO wouldn’t want to listen to something like that? I thought so.
Harlem Lake is, of course more than their singer… much of their magic sense of groove relies on Benjamin on drums and Kjelt on bass, but guitarist Sonny Ray is particularly impressive. He has a wide blues vocabulary as a player, and he rocks out with psychedelic energy when the occasion calls for it. Dave on keys is integral as well, and having a lively horn section along for these live recordings was an inspired move.
Energetic and celebratory, Volition Live is irresistible and should keep fans happy while the band continues to work on A Fool’s P:aradise Vol.2. One more spin before bed? Works for me…
HOT TRACKS: Whiskey Drinking Woman, I Won’t Complain, Guide Me Home
I STAND Demons Down (Frontiers) ****
This is the debut for these hard rock all-stars. Hard rock with an orchestral lushness at times, I Stand is something of a nod to decades gone by with big hooks and even bigger melodies while it manages to stand on its own. The band name might indicate something more guttural but the opposite is true; this is multi-dimensional hard rock.
Knowing where the band members come from might help you understand what to expect from Demons Down; guitarist Jimi Bell (Autograph, House Of Lords), drummer Ken Mary (Alice Cooper, House Of Lords) and bassist Chuck Wright (House Of Lords, played with Quiet Riot during their Metal Health days) all have track records that speak to what Demons Down brings to the stage. Having become re-acquainted with House Of Lords in the last couple of years thanks to a pair of excellent records, I think it’s fair to say if you like that stuff too, then I Stand will be right up your alley. Singer James Robledo from Chile has a robust voice, has a solo album out and is also in Chilean metal band Sinner’s Blood, who are currently preparing their second release. Italian guitarist Francesco Savino, along with Bell, gives DD much of their sonic heft as they crank out memorable riffs and hooks, one after another. Keyboards are provided by producer Alessandro Del Vecchio.
When thinking how to describe Demons Down’s sound, the word that keeps coming to mind is “driving”. Each musician is severely talented and tracks like Follow Me have the ability to make your pulse race, then they throw some tempo changes at you too. No need for knuckle dragging brutishness here as performances are polished yet still exciting slabs of rock & roll, and very well produced to boot. Texturally I Stand is very reminiscent of 80’s hard rock, almost too refined-sounding to be considered metal, yet all the elements are there. I enjoy Wright and Mary as a rhythm section, but the guitar work of Bell and Savino is exceptional. Add the mighty pipes of Robledo on top of that and you’ve got one hell of a band with one hell of a debut.
HOT TRACKS: Follow Me, I Stand, Down In A Hole
REMADE IN STEEL Odinfist (independent) ***
This is a heavy metal outfit from the Okanagan in British Columbia’s interior, and Remade In Steel is their 8th release since 2009. Think traditional heavy metal in the classic sense, in a Judas Priest sort of way, and you’ll have a good idea of where Odinfist is coming from.
Lead vocals by Tyler Anderson (who also plays guitar) remind me a lot of Trouble’s old singer Eric Wagner, accessing another gear and higher range when required. Odinfist’s roster is rounded out by Jesse Valstar (bass), Justin Ketterer (guitars, backing vocals) and Bradley Caulien (drums). Remade In Steel feels like Iron Maiden or Savatage meet Judas Priest with an early 80’s sound production-wise, which can be a strength or a weakness depending on how that era strikes you. “Over the course of our musical careers we’ve always prioritized making music that we enjoy and want to listen to first” the band says. “Each album is a snapshot of where we were mentally, creatively and socially- but we always explore new spaces within the genre and try to push into places we hadn’t been before.”
Not being familiar with Odinfist’s back catalog it’s impossible for me to judge Remade In Steel against the records that came before. As a metal fan I can say with certainty that this disc fits in with the NWOBHM bands that invaded our shores in the early 80’s. There are only 6 tracks here, but the album is 37 minutes long. Riffmaster has epic speed metal feel- satisfying musically but fantasy based lyrically and a bit trite. Metalmancer rides on classic metal riffing. Allfather is about Odin Allfather from Marvel’s Thor films, and the band readily admits to being inspired by Iron Maiden’s Dance Of Death. Deadline is described by Odinfist as their “Metallica/ Megadeth song” encompassing doom and thrash elements with lyrics about trying to survive under pressure, crushing anxiety and running out of time. Masquerade, a tune the band has toyed with for over a decade, is the epic that ends the record with, um, space aliens. Okay, then.
Meatier production and a thunderous drum sound with double kick action would’ve really lifted Remade In Steel to a higher plane.
HOT TRACKS: Riffmaster, Masquerade, Deadline