BEHIND THE SUN Grant Dermody (independent) ****+
In the blues there’s something to be said for following in the footsteps of giants. For harp player Grant Dermody, particularly on his new album Behind The Sun, he travels a similar path to Muddy Waters and Little Walter. This is a magnificent blues disc with truckloads of soul.
Dermody is one of America’s foremost blues harmonica players and a devotee of the Chicago style. Couple that with the sound and vibe of his adopted hometown of Lafayette Louisiana- he moved there from the Pacific Northwest a few years back- and you have a mesmerizing swamp-blues cocktail. Behind The Sun marks his 3rd collaboration with producer/ award winning musician Dirk Powell, and his first to feature all Louisiana musicians. Grant on harp and vocals of course, plus Dirk on several other instruments and a talented roster of guests too.
Behind The Sun is a mix of 9 originals, 2 Muddy Waters covers including the title cut plus tunes written by Rick Estrin, Kim Wilson, Jimmy Reed and Otis Rush. “I love how it all came together so easily” Dermody says. “It sounds like we’ve been playing together a long time. The collaboration was high level and joyfully given and received.” Produced by Grant Dermody and Dirk Powell, several of the songs are sparsely arranged (harp, acoustic guitar, vocals) and Time Ain’t Due is a spin tingling acapella number with gospel-y vocal assists from Teka Briscoe and Ahyris Navarre that would’ve been at home on the O Brother Where Art Thou soundtrack.
The rhythm section of bassist Lee Allen Zeno and drummer Gerard St. Julien give the full band numbers an insistent drive, and the occasional appearance of Creole accordion master Cory Ledet leaves no doubt as to where the album comes from; Louisiana by way of Chicago. Dermody has a fine singing voice and his harmonica work echoes that of Little Walter and even more modern masters like Bob Corritore and Harpdog Brown. Behind The Sun boasts some great up-tempo stuff, but its slow blues numbers like So Many Roads that really do me in. While the lyrics are introspective or in some cases sad, the bump and grind of the music has sexual oomph. I can only imagine it was huge fun for the musicians to play these numbers.
When it comes to authenticity in the blues, Behind The Sun is just about as good as it gets- you really get the feeling that Grant Dermody and his co-conspirators feel this music in their bones.
HOT TRACKS: Time Ain’t Due, Forgive Me, Louisiana Blues
HI-FI DRIVE BY Jeremiah Johnson (Ruf) **** ½
Some driving blues for you here via St. Louis of all places. Hi-Fi Drive By feels like the album with the muscle to kick Jeremiah Johnson up to the next level as it delivers more hooks than a fisherman’s tackle box. It’s like a cross between Colin James, Powder Blues and BB King, and you just won’t be able to get enough.
Powered by lively horn charts and Johnson’s stinging leads, HFDB is energetic and sassy. Produced by S. Louis legend Tom Maloney and Paul Niehaus IV, they (plus Johnson) assembled some of the best horn players, backing vocalists and percussionists in town for this musically sharp record. It also marks the first time that Jeremiah has worked with outside writers (Tom and Paul), and the end result is stronger for it. Hi-Fi is certainly the most fully realized of his discs to date, at least amongst the ones that I’ve heard; I have 5 more on my shelves.
No matter what the genre I’m always intrigued by and enthralled with excellent musicianship, and in that department Hi-Fi Drive By is ridiculously well endowed. Special guests include Victor Wainwright who plays keys on the opening track and Brandon Santini who contributes to Young And Blind, but really they’re just added spice to an already potent mix. From the straight up blues of a cut like Ball And Chain to the Latin grooves of Hot Blooded Love it seems like there’s nothing this guy can’t do. Of course bassist Paul Niehaus IV and drummer Joe Meyer give Johnson & Co. a solid foundation to build on. Johnson has grown quite a bit as a guitarist too- his solos are expressive and, on occasion, spine-tingling.
There is some great horn playing all over this record making it feel a bit uptown as it connects with a more soulful thing, giving these blues the basis for wider appeal as Johnson’s sound continues to mature. Hi-Fi Drive By feels like a defining moment in Jeremiah Johnson’s career, a ‘coming of age’ record by which folks will say “he did all those other albums, which were great, but then there was THIS…” He’s built on what he’d done before and really upped his game. HFDB crackles with energy and entertains effortlessly; can’t ask for more than that.
HOT TRACKS: Ball And Chain, Hot Blooded Love, The Band
BORDERLANDS John Fusco (Rocket 88 Records) *****
This is the third album for acclaimed filmmaker/ singer/ songwriter/ musician John Fusco. Borderland is a cinematic roots music exploration of the American southwest, what Fusco calls “the Wild West soul of America” and refers to the record as “a peyote passion play.” It’s a rusty, dusty folk vision that combines elements of blues, gospel, alt country and Latino shades resulting in a hypnotic, absorbing set of irresistible songs.
John Fusco’s cinematic history includes writing films like Crossroads, Young Guns, Thunderheart, Hidalgo and The Highwaymen, so it’s no surprise that his music would be as evocative as it is. “I’m a storyteller who writes across mediums” John says. “I was trying to give musical form to some emotions and questions about our broken country today, and telling a story seems to help me release that and frame those questions on a visceral level.” Listening to Borderlands is similar to reading a favorite book; in this case as you listen, your mind’s eye also watches the story itself unfold, as if you’re bearing witness to what’s going on.
Fusco has a ragged edged vocal style that, at times, recalls Greg Allman. George Petit produced Borderlands as well as playing guitar and bass, alongside Russ Lawton (Trey Anastasio) on drums, Acadian fiddler and mandolinist Patrick Ross with slide and dobro from Matthew Backer, conga and bongos by Stuart Paton and haunting background vocals courtesy of Ashley Betton. What they present is the album version of watching an engrossing movie set in the southwest.
Petit’s contributions are particularly notable to Fusco. “He has such a vast musical background and range that he is really able to find exactly what suits the music and intent best, and he was obsessed by it” John states. “I’d get 4am emails from him with suggestions and ideas and he really was able to find the right approach for each.” The tunes have such diverse intent; Horseback Jesus (the first song written for the album) about a brown-skinned stranger who wants to save souls that prefer their raw emotions over a better spiritual existence through unity, and Coyote Man is an alien guide who abandons his migrant clients in the desert while taking their money. Together the songs sum up the soul of a nation in danger of being lost.
Borderlands is a revelatory look at both mythic and modern conflicts that the collective American soul wrestles with on a daily basis, a true “peyote passion play” as he says. As you listen you’ll be able to ‘see’ the stories too, and that’s pretty damn rare.
HOT TRACKS: Coyote Man, Horseback Jesus, Bad Luck Rides Shotgun
BLOOD IN BLOOD OUT Iron Allies (AFM) **** ½
Fans of Accept are about to spring one, and I mean hard. Former Accept guitarist Herman Frank and one time Accept singer David Reece (in the band at different times) have created Iron Allies. Blood In Blood Out is a crushing, palm-muted classic metal attack, and it’s a beautiful thing.
Iron Allies is made up of musicians with years of experience and serious chops. With drummer Francesco Jovino, bassist Malte Burkert and rhythm guitarist Mike Pesin, Frank and Reece have gathered like-minded souls to unleash an energetic and relentless attack. “People love strong characters, they want to see real men, not little boys” Herman Frank says of his new band. “Iron Allies is made up of old school knights and Blood On Blood is the perfect soundtrack.” The sonic heft of this thing is truly a thing to behold; produced by Frank along with Arne Nuerand, recorded in Hanover and mastered by Dennis Ward, of the band and production team the guitarist notes simply that “we left nothing to chance, all positions were perfectly cast.”
As much as I enjoy Accept and have followed them particularly since their rebirth with 2010’s Blood Of The Nations Iron Allies is a progression and a step away from that particular template proving that Frank and Reece have much to say as musicians and songwriters. The pair first got together when Herman paid the singer a visit in Placenca. “We hit it off right away because David- like me- is not only an old warhorse but a total music lover” he says. “I love his voice, that unique blend of metal, rock and blues- and he’s an awesome lyricist.”
Blood In Blood Out is heavy, pounding and relentless metal, yet surprisingly varied. Lots of double kick drumming to be sure, but when they gear down on a track like Nightmares In My Mind they still pack a powerful punch. The music has an almost physical presence, and while Herman says “this record cannot be compared to anything David or I have produced in the past” I believe it can, and quite favorably. To perhaps give you a better idea, think Accept’s classic Balls To The Wall meets Judas Priest’s Painkiller. It’s certainly not for everybody but dammit, I’m REALLY enjoying this. I have some solo stuff from both David Reece and Herman Frank in my collection but after giving Blood In Blood Out a few spins there’s no doubt in my mind- they’re much stronger together. Crank this up to 11!
HOT TRACKS: Full Of Surprises, Truth Never Mattered, Nightmares In My Mind
SUPERMAN Sara Niemietz (independent) *****+
This will be in the running for my “Best of 2022” list next month. Superman, Sara Niemietz’s 4th album is a blend of folk, jazz and blues that wraps itself around you like a warm hug, puts an arm around you and just… takes you somewhere else.
Never having heard of Sara Niemietz before I had no clue that I was about to have my soul moved. It’s like when you flip thru Netflix and settle on a movie ‘just for something to watch’ and voila- you have a new favorite film, like Paul Giamati’s Sideways, but I digress. The magic of Superman lies in Sara’s delicate yet passionate vocals and the laid back musical textures and melodies that she plays with, displaying classic pop music smarts. It’s a fresh collaboration with co-writer/ co-producer Linda Taylor, supple backbeats supplied by drummer Leo Costa and bassist Daniel Pearson, with keyboard inlays by Ed Roth… all in all an intuitive, magical blend.
“This album is about vulnerability and empowerment” Niemietz says. “It’s about speaking your piece, shaking off the past, and finding the superhero inside. As a kid I used to run around with this blanket tied around my neck and call myself ‘Super Sara’. This is a return to that.” There is much to pull from her lyrics, but Superman is immediately enjoyable on a purely musical level. That’s what initially pulled me in before what she was singing about even began to register.
As a creative partnership, Niemietz and Taylor count Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Janis Joplin, Birttany Howard, early Kings Of Leon and D’Angelo as major touchstones. That explains the breadth of territory they cover in these 14 songs. Sensual blues ballads, smoldering soul, jazz/ pop and indie rock are all felt and heard as we are guided through emotional peaks and valleys on what can only be considered an emotionally satisfying ride. Lots of different vibes and feels, and yet when you put it all together it feels like a seamless journey.
Superman is simply one of the most satisfying albums I’ve heard in a very long time, and I have a sneaking suspicion you’ll end up feeling that way about it too. You gotta have this.
HOT TRACKS: I Want You, Lovely Lies, Keep An Eye
BOOGIE TILL I DIE Henri Herbert (HH Records) ***
With the death of Jerry Lee Lewis last week it’s hard to believe I would review a disc from a boogie-woogie piano player by happenstance, but that’s the deal. Boogie Till I Die is just Herbert’s voice and his piano, celebrating this quintessentially American art form. Like any instrumental record based around one instrument- like a Steve Vai or Joe Satriani guitar album- listening in one go can be fatiguing but man, this cat can tickle them ivories!
Herbert comes at the songs on Boogie in the right way. “I like to try to push it forward” he says. “For me it’s mainly about the groove, trying to find new ways to play that beat, new rhythms that are still exciting, finding elements that have not been pushed forward and bringing them out.” With proliferation of high-powered blues guitarists boogie piano seems relegated to the sidelines, but guys like Henri Herbert are keeping this underrated discipline alive.
Boogie Till I Die combines new originals alongside fresh takes on classics by artists like Duke Ellington, Oscar Peterson,, Muddy Waters and Chuck Leavell. “You look at guys like John Lee Hooker and Lightnin’ Hopkins, they took boogie and explored it and took it somewhere else” Henri notes. “It’s that rhythmic pulse that I find exciting. I want to take it back to its roots but keep exploring.” On this new album he gives it a damn good try, but to really appreciate what he’s up to a fondness for the piano- rollicking or otherwise- is pretty important.
I get and appreciate what Henri is trying to get across with Boogie Till I Die but I think it might have been more effective and wider reaching if this was a full band album instead, or at the very least a piano, bass and drums trio; now that would be some hot shit right there. As it sits, Boogie has a niche appeal that will limit its commercial potential. Still glad to have it though.
HOT TRACKS: Boogie Till I Die, Must Have Been The Devil, It Don’t Mean A Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing