SOUTHERN Stephen Foster & Howler (Thoroughbred Music) ****
Southern blues powered by greasy slide guitar; the album title Southern makes perfect sens. They’ve had 8 albums out in the last decade so these are busy dudes- in the studio and on stages all over the planet. This record will take you all the way back home.
Stephen Foster signed his first recording contract in 1969 as a stable mate to Percy Sledge, wrote songs for Lynyrd Skynyrd, and was the house guitarist at Quinvy Studio in Muscle Shoals, with a legendary list of session credits from the 70’s. He then walked away from the restrictions of big label deals and started Whitehorse Records in 1979, was an integral part of the Indie move to bust the majors and, after some 20 years of owning recording studios, decided to concentrate on his own recordings in ’00. Just thought you should get to know him a little bit before we jump in here.
I wouldn’t so much call this album blues as I would a healthy chunk of laid back southern-ness. There’s nothing frantic about the grooves they ride here, moving roughly at the pace of the Mississippi on a hot summer day. Some of the songs here are personal, like the single You Can’t Take Me Home, released in April. The song is about the rumour that fans have been chipping pieces off Ronnie Van Zant’s gravestone as mementos. Foster says “I was friends with Ronnie until his passing (in 1977) after writing some songs which Lynyrd Skynyrd used for their first audition in Muscle Shoals at Quinvy Studio in early 1970, Rest in peace Freebird.” The latest single is Baby Blue.
Southern feels like a cross between Skynyrd and The Allman Brothers with John Mayall thrown in for good measure. Aside from Stephen Foster on vocals, keyboards and guitar, Howler is Kelvin Holley on guitar, who played with Little Richard for many years… bassist J.R. Byrd from Jerry Lee Lewis’s band, plus Evan Young on drums and vocals. All are smooth players, weaving around each other and blending effortlessly to create this unequivocal southern vibe. If you have a hankering to chill to some righteous slide powered bluesiness, Southern is the ticket.
BEST CUTS: You Can’t Take Me Home, Baby Blue, Too Late
MOE BETTA BLUES Miss Lady Blues (independent) ****+
Sometimes we like a blues record for great harmonica playing or spine-tingling guitar work, and while the musicianship on Miss Lady Blues’ new record is mighty sweet, she’s got a powerful and rare voice, the kind that doesn’t often come along. Moe Betta Blues is all about attitude and keeping it tight- it’s a beautiful thing.
Tikesha McMullen Boyd, a/k/a Miss Lady Blues, a native of Tuscaloosa Alabama, now calls Atlanta Georgia home. Growing up, everyone around her noticed that she had a beautiful singing voice. Starting her music career in 2013, MLB independently released her first album Pieces Of My Soul in 2017 and has put in the road miles to hone her craft, being recognized in 2021 as “Best Female Blues Artist” by the Alabama Music Awards.
Moe Betta Blues is an accomplished and startlingly confident piece of work, with a maturity beyond her relatively few years in the business. Miss Lady Blues has a sultry, seductive voice and the production here is sumptuous. As she puts her twist on traditional blues here, the songs come across as a meeting of the blues, Motown and classic 70’s soul, and that’s a delicious combination. The subject matter she works with here is certainly traditional blues fare about being in love, falling out of love, and everything in between- something each of us can relate to.
With that voice and her approach, MLB is determined to create her own space in the music world. Comparisons to Shemekia Copeland seem likely but honestly, I haven’t been as captivated by a soulful female singer like this since… I gotta go back to the first time I heard Gladys Knight in the early 70’s. Even today when I hear Gladys on the radio or on a compilation that I’ve made for the car or my wife’s truck, I have to stop whatever I’m doing and listen. Miss Lady Blues is having a very similar effect on me too; I first put this album on while farting around in the music room, but soon forgot what I was up to, sat in my comfy chair and gave her my full attention.
Blues, soul, soulful blues, call it what you will. Moe Betta Blues is an album you really need to hear.
BEST CUTS: Addicted, Back It Up With That Lip, Baby
STRONG Anette Olzon (Frontiers) ****
Olson is one of the most fearsome female singers in heavy metal. Currently singing for The Dark Element, Strong is her 2nd solo effort after 2014’s Shine. This is a harder, faster musical offering, mixing a dizzying array of metal styles to crushing effect.
The songs on Strong were written by Anette and Swedish guitarist/ producer Magnus Karlsson, whose name has appeared in this column many times before. Together they strike a tricky balance here with tunes that are heavy and melodic. There are dense walls of riffs and ridiculously fast double kick drumming from Anders Kollerfors, and when the disc wanders into death metal territory, the growly ‘Cookie Monster’ vocals are handled by Johan Husgafvel. Even with all hell breaking loose, Annette’s vocals cut through with an almost eerie precision.
Strong also has a… well, strong symphonic metal element to it, which you’ll either find exciting or a bit pretentious. The info I was given with this does not list anyone for keyboards, but as they are heavily featured in the sound of the record, I gotta figure that’s Magnus handling those as well. Their function is to thicken the sound, yet I can’t help but wonder if that might have been done more effectively with additional guitar overdubs. For the symphonic conceits of Strong the keyboards serve well enough, but think how much more exciting this could’ve been with an adventurous orchestra along for the ride, with the added benefit of giving the music room to breathe.
My beef with the overabundance of keyboards on this disc are nothing new, I’ve noted it on several other releases from Frontiers label as well. The fact remains, though, that Strong is a batch of well written songs with muscular performances delivered by all involved, with Olson and Karlsson at the absolute top of their game. I haven’t heard Anette Olson sing since her 2020 collaboration with Allen Lande (which Magnus was also involved in), and was glad to be reminded of what a powerhouse singer she is. I fall in deeper with every spin; Strong just keeps getting better every time.
BEST CUTS: Sick Of You, Sad Lullaby, Roll The Dice
SERMONS OF THE SINNER KK’s Priest (EX1 Records) *** ¾
If you can’t join ‘em, beat ‘em. After not being called back to step in for Glenn Tipton in Judas Priest when Glenn announced he was retiring from the road, it was inevitable that Downing would go out under his own flag. Sermons of The Sinner is full tilt heavy metal, with a foot in the classic Priest style and more modern constructions. The results are more satisfying than anticipated.
The name of the band is an obvious nod to the 40 years Ken (KK) Downing spent as one half of the Judas Priest’s twin guitar attack. He says the album title Sermons of The Sinner is a nod to his famous solo on the Priest classic Sinner. It’s also a reference to his sense of alienation from the band he helped create in Birmingham in 1969. “I continue to proudly be who I am and what I am and do what I do” he says on the band website, “It’s been nearly ten years. I’m back to making music.”
As an integral part of Judas Priest from the first record to 2008’s Nostradamus, it would be shocking if Sermons Of The Sinner DIDN’T remind you of them. I’d say this disc is like Screaming For Vengeance meets Demolition, certainly highlights of the Priest catalog for me. Downing has chosen his musical companions well; on second guitar is JJ Mills and Tony Newton is on bass. Les Binks (Judas Priest drummer from the 70’s) was originally behind the kit until a wrist injury took him out; now that falls to Sean Elg.
The singer in KK’s Priest is, of course, Tim “Ripper” Owens, who replaced Rob Halford in the 90’s and can be heard on the Jugulator and Demolition albums as well as ’98 Live Meltdown and Live In London. Ripper’s work on Sermons of The Sinner, now that he’s not toiling in Rob Halford’s shadow, displays a strength, power and range only hinted at when he was in JP. Sure the lyrics can get cheesy, but isn’t that part of metal’s appeal?
Because of who Ken is this disc can’t help but reflect Judas Priest. “People (hope) you’re going to make a record you’ve already made” he notes on the website, “so in a way this records just sounds like something that has already been made or should have been made. It does have a lot of things that are connected to the past.” One of those is The Return Of The Sentinel which ends the record, a sequel to the song off of Defenders Of The Faith. It’s a 9 minute epic; the first half the metal you expect, the second more somber and subdued as this dispenser of justice and death contemplates his own mortality.
After hearing the first couple of singles I thought “Jeez I’m not sure about this” but now, having taken in Sermons of The Sinner as a whole piece of work, I’m quite happy with it. Downing has a new legacy to build and is off to a promising start.
BEST CUTS: Brothers Of The Road, The Return Of The Sentinel, Wild And Free
BAD NEWS RISING Chris Barnes (Vizztone) *****
The latest from New York’s Chris Barnes is a lascivious delight. Bad News Rising is more of his trademark ironic, salacious ‘hokum’ blues. It’s his third for this label and his first original blues album. Lots of great bump ‘n’ grind in this puppy.
Chris is a former Seinfeld, Curb Your Enthusiasm, 30 Rock and Carol Burnett TV show performer and writer, and so his lyrics are quite entertaining. On Bad News Rising he mixes his satiric musings (Chicks Dig Me, Texas Weiner) with biographical blues driven gems like When Koko Came To Town, about the late blues belter. He can move you too; just check out I Slow Danced With Joni Mitchell and get back to me. Bad News Rising benefits from having a dangerously hot band behind Chris, including drummer/ producer Tom Hambridge- sweet Jesus, who HASN’T he worked with in the blues world in the last decade?!? It just seems like I’ve been typing his name A LOT in album reviews lately but dammit, when he works with someone they deliver the goods.
Bad News Rising is sweet bluesy goodness with thick danceable grooves, a thoroughly good time. The deep, driving rhythm and witty lyrics will have you singing along in no time against your better judgment. I don’t know about you, but after the couple of years we’ve had and what still lies ahead of us, I’m beyond ready to have a good time. The mid-tempo acoustic ballad I Slow Danced With Joni Mitchell stands out in stark relief against the bawdy stuff, and if even half of the things he mentions in the song are true, he’s had a pretty friggin’ impressive life.
Bad News Rising was recorded at Nashville’s Sound Stage Studio and includes some of the best session cats in the game; Kevin McKendree on keys (Delbert McClinton, Anson Funderburgh), Tommy McDonald on bass (Buddy Guy, Johnny Winter), Pat Buchanan on guitar and harp (Cameo, Hall & Oates) and the aforementioned Tom Hambridge (Buddy Guy, Susan Tedeschi, Roy Buchanan) on drums. Combine all that with Barnes’s weathered voice and his way with words and you have greatness. If you get the CD you’ll find this on the inside; “Dedicated to the Mission of John Adam Belushi A.K.A. JAKE BLUES (1/24/49-2/5/1982)” Thought provoking, horny and funny, plus extremely well played; Bad News Rising is pretty damn great.
BEST CUTS: I Slow Danced With Joni Mitchell, You Wanna Rock? You Gotta Learn The Blues, Kettle Black
TEMPTING FATE Carolyn Wonderland (Alligator) **** ½
Carolyn Wonderland pulls on her cowboy boots and kicks the gates wide open with this, her label debut. Tempting Fate is a savory mix of hard blues and country, delivered with sass and serious firepower. This, to my ears and heart, is the sound of Texas.
Wonderland is a Lone Star guitar slinger, singer, songwriter and multi instrumentalist and Tempting Fate is mesmerizing. First time through I thought this feels more like country than anything, but then country music is the white man’s blues. It’s a deep record that reveals more on every pass, and her voice can be frightening yet thrilling when she really cuts loose. TF is a bold mix of gutsy originals and some reinvented classics that are not to be missed. Her remake of The Grateful Dead’s Loser that ends the record is worth the price of admission alone, and her duet with Jimmie Dale Gilmour on Bob Dylan’s It Takes A Lot To Laugh, It Takes A Train To Cry is a stunner.
Tempting Fate was produced by roots rock legend Dave Alvin, who has captured Carolyn perfectly as the album bristles with the energy and passion you usually find on a great live record. Every track is fueled by Wonderland’s forceful yet melodic Texas-flavored guitar and her full throated heart-on-her-sleeve singing. It’s one of those records with a physical presence as it pours out of your speakers. Singing aside she’s a great guitar player, and her lap steel work that gives the album much of its country feel is a kick too.
Carolyn Wonderland’s Tempting Fate sounds like Texas as it blurs the lines between country and blues, and I dare you to sit still as it plays. I wouldn’t doubt that, in the not too distant future, some of these songs will be considered classics. This is hot stuff. https://carolynwonderland.com/
BEST CUTS: Loser, Fragile Peace And Certain War, A Texas Girl And Her Boots