AIN’T NOBODY WORRIED Rory Block (Stony Plain) ***+
A fascinating new record from Ms. Block. Ain’t Nobody Worried is a covers disc that takes Rory outside of the blues for the most part. Billed as the third in her “Power Women Of The Blues” series it’s fine company, as her stuff usually is.
“The inspiration for this recording was born during the dreaded shut downs” Rory says. “Being quarantined led us to the idea of home broadcasts. After covering just about every blues, folk and old timey song I ever knew, the idea popped into my head to reach into the songbook of the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s.” This, in turn, led to a disc covering songs made famous by people like Koko Taylor, Tracy Chapman, Gladys Knight & The Pips and Carole King.
If you’re looking for close replicas of the originals or revolutionary new arrangements, Ain’t Nobody Worried is not that sort of record. “I started referring to it as ‘The Campfire Sessions’” she says. “That meant ‘hey, pass me the guitar… let me try that one!’ While it was challenging, and I never had enough time to really learn the songs properly, no one minded or expected my acoustic versions to be replicas of the originals.” The result of this approach is that you can really feel Block’s affection for each tune as she plays and sings them.
Ain’t Nobody Worried is one of Rory Blocks most ambitious recordings as she sings and plays every note, percussion included, though the occasionally cheesy drum programming is a turnoff for me. Her fingerstyle guitar playing is mesmerizing and her vocal performances are as passionate as they are charming. Rory’s choice of songs, inspired by requests from listeners of her home broadcast concert series, makes for a delightful listen. Tracks include I’ll Take You There (The Staple Singers), Love Has No Pride (Bonnie Raitt), Dancing In The Streets (Martha & The Vandellas) and Etta James’s I’d Rather Go Blind. One of the more interesting cuts, however, is Lovin’ Whiskey. “This is the song I thought nobody would care about” Rory muses. “This is the song that launched my career- I didn’t want to put it on the record. It has remained my most popular and requested song for over three decades. More people say that it helped them through the hardest times of their lives than any other I have written.” As a firm believer in the healing power of music, that hits close to home for me.
Ain’t Nobody Worried isn’t your typical Rory Block album and yet it doesn’t stray far from what we love her for. This gentle, inspiring music was made for the coming cold winter nights.
HOT TRACKS: Lovin’ Whiskey, Midnight Train To Georgia, Freight Train
THE BLUES DON’T LIE Buddy Guy (RCA) *****+
It’s funny how rock acts struggle to put out relevant and exciting music in the sunset of their careers while blues people get better as the years go by. With The Blues Don’t Lie Buddy Guy has just released one of the best albums of his entire career, after decades of making great music.
The Blues Don’t Lie is my favorite Buddy Guy record since 1991’s Damn Right I’ve Got The Blues, and that’s really saying something. Buddy teams up once again with producer Tom Hambridge, who wrote 11 of the 16 tracks and plays drums throughout. As I think he’s done with Buddy Guy’s other records, I imagine these songs grew out of conversations they had in the run-up to the sessions- they sound too autobiographical NOT to- songs about life, about our world. BG wrote a couple too and there’s a handful of choice covers, like a mid-tempo groovin’ version of The Beatles’ I Got A Feeling. As with everything I’ve heard Hambridge produce TBDL sounds terrific- nice and meaty, clean but not too clean; Powerful.
Though he may be 86 Buddy hardly takes it easy on the new record. He plays with the fire and brimestone of a guitarist half his age and, like his old friend BB King, has a passionate and riveting vocal style that just pulls you right into the songs. Though Buddy hardly needs the help, a half dozen other stars pitch in here to take us even higher. Folks like Bobby Rush, Elvis Costello and Mavis Staples make their presence felt and yet it doesn’t feel like stunt casting as it has on so many other records. Buddy Guy could (and would) be forgiven for coasting at this stage of his career, but as a guitar player he’s just as dangerous as he’s ever been. I know I’ve mentioned it before, but in the 90’s (I think it was) Eric Clapton called him “the last the real he-man of the blues guitar”. All these years later when it comes down to it he’s still power lifting and showing EVERYONE how it’s done. There’s just no other way to say it; Buddy Guy is a bad motherfucker with a guitar in his hands and still dangerous.
The creative relationship between Buddy Guy and Tom Hambridge continues to reap benefits as The Blues Don’t Lie is a stunning achievement in every way. Slow blues, mid-tempo grooviness, the high octane stuff and plenty of grease too, it’s a blues feast. The man is giving it everything he’s got, and The Blues Don’t Lie is one of the best albums of the year in ANY genre.
HOT TRACKS: What’s Wrong With that (with Bobby Rush), Gunsmoke Blues (with Jason Isbell), I Let My Guitar do The Talking
THE FINAL BATTLE Stryper (Frontiers) ****
Decades into their career, Stryper continues to astound critics. The Final Battle is their 14th studio record, building on the heft and success of a spectacular late career run that started with 2013’s remarkable No More Hell To Pay. It’s more of the riff-centric classic 80’s metal vibe that we grew up on, Christian messaging too, and I can’t get enough of it.
Powered by tight rhythms, Michael Sweet’s operatic vocals and some virtuoso guitar playing The Final Battle is driving rock & roll. The circumstances of its creation were hard by any measure. Yes they were affected by the pandemic as was every other artist on the planet but there were medical issues to get past too; a detached retina for Michael that required multiple surgeries to deal with, and lead guitarist Oz Fox’s ongoing battle with brain tumors. They rose above however, and along with Michael’s brother Robert on drums and new bassist Perry Richardson (ex-Firehouse) they really came up with the goods.
Some have a hard time reconciling the decidedly Christian message of their lyrics with the hard and heavy music and I readily confess that was my dilemma until No More Hell To Pay changed my mind and won me over nearly a decade ago. Musically speaking, The Final Battle is an intriguing mix of 80’s style hair metal with vintage Accept circa Balls To the Wall. The songs have swagger, they grind and move and the lyrics can be considered from different angles, no matter what faith you subscribe to. I take a more humanistic view and Michael Sweet is smart enough as a songwriter to have his tunes resonate on that level as well.
Instead of resting on their laurels Stryper continues to up their game with each of the last 4 or 5 records out-muscling its immediate predecessor in terms of performance, writing and sheer sonic impact. Consider too that rock & roll is all about breaking boundaries and playing by your own rules; by that measure what’s more rock & roll than cranking your Marshalls up to 11 and singing about Jesus? The cheeky bastards make it work- Plus, The Final Battle is full of songs that stick with you long after the last track is done.
Stryper’s latest album is pulverizing, classic metal. They have no right to make music this heavy and engaging nearly 40 years into their career, yet here we are. No More Hell To Pay was my favorite Stryper record until earlier this week, but The Final Battle has taken top spot for me. Riff after riff, solo after solo, and those soaring vocals all over the rock solid rhythms of Robert Sweet and Perry Richardson… this is great rock & roll, period.
HOT TRACKS: Transgressor, Near, Till Death Do Us Part
ROCK CANDY Orianthi (Frontiers) ****+
This Australian singer/ guitarist has just released a killer album. Rock Candy s adventurous, infectious full-tilt rock & roll and sweet pop song craft Her fifth solo disc is ever changing and endlessly entertaining; it will take a few spins to absorb and you won’t mind that at all.
Most people- myself included- first became aware of Orianthi through her tenure with Michael Jackson during the ill-fated “This Is It” rehearsals, then a 3 year stint as Alice Cooper’s touring guitarist. It was with 2020’s O that I got to know her as a musician and solo artist and that journey of discovery continues with Rock Candy. Listening to songs like Getting To Me the album title makes total sense; when you hear just one track you start thinking “I want more”.
Like her friend Nita Strauss, who replaced her in Alice’s stage band until earlier this year, Orianthi is like Joe Satriani meets Jimmy Page with musicianship that is in turns cinematic and breathtaking, with plenty of muscle to spare. This was produced by multi-instrumentalist Jacob Bunton, who also provides some guitar, bass, keyboards & violin, and the studio band is rounded out by drummer Kyle Cunningham. There’s something about playing as a trio that is freeing, giving each player more room to breathe and run with the ball when it’s their turn to shine.
Orianthi has worked with some musical legends to be sure, but her lifelong pursuit of artistic credibility has taken giant leaps forward with O and now Rock Candy. It’s rock & roll with pop music smarts, so having an Emmy Award-winning songwriter, producer and musician like Bunton (Maria Carey, Steven Tyler, Smokey Robinson, Akon, Pop Evil) has something to do with the results. Though she is first and foremost a guitar player of considerable skill and talent, I quite enjoy her as a singer too. All of these things combined give Rock Candy a classic feel and physical presence, as if the band was right in your music room playing for you. This record doesn’t just sound good it connects too; isn’t that what every artist is after?
Guitar freaks will fall in love with Rock Candy, but allow yourself to feel this stuff on an even deeper level. This is so good it’s stupid- definitely one of 2022’s essential albums.
HOT TRACKS: Light It Up, Void, Illuminate parts I & II
ABSRACT TRUTH Billy Truitt (independent) **** ½
Every once in awhile an album comes along that’s hard to corner. Is Abstract Truth country? Rock? Reggae? Bakersfield? The answer is yes. The new record from Billy Truitt may be a tad slippery to pin down, but one thing’s for sure- it’s a big pile of fun.
Southern Idaho’s Billy Truitt began his touring career many moons ago with Jack Ely & The Kingsmen (of Louie, Louie fame), but a couple of years later Billy was summoned by Uncle Sam to take part in a little skirmish in southeast Asia. After opening a studio in Boise, Truitt found himself moving to southern California to become entrenched in the vibrant Bakersfield and LA honkytonk studio and club scene. In the 90’s he moved to Las Vegas where a couple of musical ventures led to founding a group called the Vegas Strip Kings, whose album Jackpot caught the critics’ attention in 2019. I reviewed it in March of that year and gave it a 5 star rating.
Abstract Truth, although released under singer/ guitarist Billy Truitt’s name, includes most of Vegas Strip Kings while taking the band in a fresh new direction. This is an exhilarating disc crafted by skilled musicians who mix a wide range of influences to vibrant effect. Most of these songs were written by Billy with Waylon Jennings’ Waymore Blues being an exception, and the album was recorded in Idaho and Las Vegas with Truitt himself serving as producer; who better to know exactly what he was after? Lots of guys in the studio with him here, and I was delighted to note that Jimmy Carpenter lends a hand on tenor and baritone saxes.
Abstract Truth is a great title for this particular batch of songs with a generally relaxed and swingin’ feel. Lyrically the tunes touch on some deep subject matter but Billy never loses that gleam in his eye. With song titles like Preacher Stole My Angel and Salvation Or Hell and Famous Potatoes I can picture him smiling while he sings.
If you had to describe this album to someone else I suppose ‘modern classic country’ would fit as a label as well as any other. The playing- from Billy’s guitars down through the rest of the band- is breathtaking and the songs themselves have a light country swing, showcasing the good time side of some seriously talented musicians. The spirit of Abstract Truth can be summed up in Ragtime Eastern Cowboy “22”, the instrumental that closes out the album.
Abstract Truth will almost certainly never be a mainstream hit- but those who dare to sample its considerable charms will be richly rewarded.
HOT TRACKS: Preacher Stole My Angel, Salvation Or Hell and Famous Potatoes, Ragtime Eastern Cowboy “22”
MISSISSIPPI BOUND Ivor SK (independent/bandcamp) *****
It’s the third time for this Australian bluesman, and he’s just hit a home run. Powered by a warmly charred voice and liquid smooth guitar playing, Mississippi Bound is a joyous blues adventure that touches from time to time on the darker edges of humor, GREAT stuff.
Mississippi Bound is Ivor SK (Simpson-Kennedy) ‘s first release since relocating to New Orleans 5 years ago. 15 tracks, all original, self-performed and produced, this really feels like a trip through and into the blues motherland. That he captures that vibe so completely as an Australian ex-pat is a bit of a trip. His guitar playing is mesmerizing, greasy and groovy as he plays tasty slide over elemental riffs. Critic Philip Smith (Philly Cheeze’s Rock & Blues Reviews) says that Ivor SK reminds him of “listening to Tom Waits for the first time, being caught up in the wonderfully raspy voice, the musicianship and the songs.” Ivor’s voice isn’t nearly as damaged as Tom’s- he reminds me of Harry Manx crossed with Dr. John- but I get the sentiment and understand it.
On his new album Ivor SK really digs into his slide playing, dusting each song with some deep southern soul. As he faithfully reinterprets Delta blues, you’d swear he grew up on a cotton plantation. Mississippi Bound is a sparse yet rich recording centered on Ivor’s wonderfully expressive singing, fluid licks, tasty slide and cool keyboard work too. Created over a year of pandemic-induced downtime, it’s crystal clear that SK has spent his time listening to and absorbing what his new home has to offer. Combine his evocative playing and singing with a natural gift for storytelling, and you’ve got a blues record that you’ll be playing for your friends when they come over, saying only “Hey, you gotta listen to this!!”
I really enjoy high octane modern electric blues full of nut-busting guitar solos, but there’s also something to be said for simple acoustic blues like this. On Mississippi Bound Ivor isn’t overly precious about allowing outside influences in, like on the titlr cut with its Caribbean feel which makes this a bunch more fun to listen to than your average blues, even as he sings about life’s highs and lows. This may not be a party album, but it’s pretty damn fine company.
HOT TRACKS: Talkin’ Shit Again, Mississippi Bound, Sex, Drugs & Cigarettes