B’S TESTIMONY Al Basile (Sweet Spot Records) ****
A sweet new album here from Al Basile. His last couple of records, Me & The Originator and Last Hand, were song cycle albums that told complete stories. B’s Testimony is a collection of songs where each expresses a story or dramatic situation. It’s a treat to have Al return to this kind of musical expression.
B’s Testimony is a full band record. “My last album had just a trio behind me” Basile says, “I wanted to try returning to the larger group I normally use. I (also) made the decisions, great and small. It’s the most complete involvement I’ve ever had, all the way to the finish- it’s my vision.” This also marks the first time Al has hooked up with Kid Andersen, though they’ve been fans of each other’s work for years. “I’d played with Kid at the BMA’s a few years back and knew how versatile and imaginative he is” Al notes. “”Even in the Covid year we could send him tracks and have him take part.”
Though B’s Testimony is a more traditional type of record, fans will enjoy the prominence his cornet playing takes throughout. His lyric writing continues to impress me too. “I often write in the voice of other characters who are different from me” he notes, “and I like to tell the truth in every song – not necessarily one that happened to me, but one that does happen, and could happen to you. So, some happy songs, some downhearted ones, some good luck, some buzzard luck. All true… I swear.”
Basile’s warm and weathered singing voice brings realism to the yarns he spins here, and the band is in fine form. Kid Andersen’s involvement on guitar has raised everyone’s playing to a higher plane, resulting in this particular slice of Rhode Island blues being a stone cold pleasure to listen to time and again. I’m a fan (this is my 9th Basile disc), and after the last couple of song cycles it’s refreshing to hear him making this more ‘traditional’ kind of record, for lack of a better term. The fans will really dig this.
KEY CUTS: One Day At A Time (with Shy Perry), Lucky Man, I Got A Right To Be Lonesome
JUST SAY THE WORD Gabe Stillman (VizzTone) ****+
An exciting performer here; a bluesman from Pennsylvania of all places. Just Say The Word is an action packed disc, 13 thoughtful originals and a couple of covers. From a wonderfully expressive singing voice to righteous playing skills, Gabe has it all.
This should tell you all you need to know about Stillman’s chops; he won the prestigious Gibson guitar Award at the Blues Foundation’s 2019 International Blues Challenge. Produced by Anson Funderburgh at Wire Recording in Austin, Texas, Just Say the Word has a thick, powerful sound as it mixes personal and universal lyrical observations for a compelling front to back listen. Funderburgh calls Gabe “an amazing singer, a great songwriter and a wonderful musician”- as a veteran of the Texas music scene, he’d know.
The band on this disc is Stillman on vocals and guitar, Colin Beatty on bass, Ray Hangen on drums and Taylor Streiff on all keyboards. Just Say The Word also includes musical guest appearances from Funderburgh and Sue Foley (guitars on No Matter Whjat You Wear) and Greg Izor (harmonica, Susquehanna 66), some pretty impressive blues muscle to have involved here. Though Gabe Stillman is considered a bluesman at heart, giving this disc just one label is limiting; instead of calling it ‘blues’ or this or that, maybe ‘just groovy tunes’ is the right way to get at it. Greg can kick out the jams and rip a fire breathing solo when the occasion calls for it, but when he brings it down on a song like Heartbreak Makes A Sound he sure makes you feel it.
Above everything I’ve already said about this disc, Just Say the Word is also a finely crafted piece of work. Gabe’s voice and even his playing isn’t inspired by the mileage a world-weary musician might have with decades of one nighters playing shitty bars, and that brings a freshness to the music. This is his first album; it’s frightening to think how good he’s going to be a few years down the road, and I’m definitely in for the ride.
KEY CUTS: No Peace For A Soldier, Out of Time, Heartbreak Makes A Sound
STAIN THE SEA Inner Stream (Frontiers) *****
There’s lots to sink your teeth into here. With Ines-Vera Ortiz at the helm, Inner Sea blends different sub genres and styles like symphonic metal, electronica, Goth and nu metal. But how does that work? Spectacularly well, as it turns out, and Stain The Sea is all the proof you need.
As a female fronted hard rock outfit comparisons to Amy Lee and Evanescence are likely but they barely scratch the surface of what Ortiz is up to with her rich variety of textures, heavy riffs, melodies and emotion. Inner Stream started off in 2008 as a project developed by Ines and her brother Jorge in Buenos Aires. At the time she was singing for some local power metal bands, but her song writing was leading her in other directions. “While my song writing is varied, my heart is very close to metal and I will never look away from it” she says. Fast forward to 2017 after trying and failing to get a band together, she teams up with Argentinian keyboard player and producer Guillermo De Medio and things begin falling into place, leading to a multi-album deal with Frontiers.
Ortiz is a powerful singer, not unlike Lee Aaron, and the emotional content of her lyrics in songs like the title track are a good fit with the high drama of the music itself. Combining genres as described in that first paragraph might seem blasphemous to some, particularly to fans of each specific type listed, but Stain The Sea offers rich rewards to anyone willing to wade in to these 11 tracks. With metal as the baseline musical style here, the disc is a brawny masterpiece. If Inner Stream is this good, this overwhelmingly powerful on their first time out, I can hardly wait to see what happens next.
KEY CUTS: Massive Drain, Stain The Sea, Last Drink
A BLUESMAN CAME TO TOWN Tommy Castro (Alligator) *****+
You hear a lot about concept albums in rock, but never in the blues. Tommy Castro’s powerful new record is a root music odyssey, the tale of a young man who, bitten by the blues bug, breaks away from the family farm to hit the road with his guitar to seek fame and fortune… only to find out the treasure he’s been seeking is what he left behind. A Bluesman Came To Town is a morality play, but never trite- and the music is outstanding.
A Bluesman Came To Town was written by Castro and Grammy winning producer Tom Hambridge, who has been mentioned in this column many times before. “I like to keep things fresh and interesting” Tommy says. “Tom and I have talked about making a record together for a long time (and) collaborating with him was even better than I imagined. I had an outline of a story and then Tom and I talked it out and the songs just started to grow organically out of each other.” The story, by the way, is not autobiographical. “A Bluesman Came To Town isn’t about me” Castro says. “It’s pulled from some of my friends’ and my experiences, though. I’ve seen first-hand for a lot of years what it’s like to be out there on the road.” Hey- that’s the blues.
To make an album like this really function, the songs need to contribute to the larger story while being able to stand on their own, and that is not an issue here. All the things we like about Tommy Castro (I have 11 of his 16 albums in my collection) are here for us to enjoy, what Living Blues calls “sizzling, slow-burning, gritty blues and rock…shimmering, swampy, downright funky vibes drenched with Castro’s stinging, pure and crisp lead runs and fluid, jet-fuelled solos.”
Thanks in no small part to Tom Hambridge’s involvement as co-creator and producer, A Bluesman Came To Town is Castro’s strongest record to date. It’s a rockin’, soulful and muscular blues experience that can engage you on a story level, a musical level, or both. Thanks to records like this, next to Buddy Guy Tommy Castro is one of my favourite blues guitarists. This disc is stunning- don’t be surprised to see it near or at the top of many year end “Best of” list, blues or otherwise, including mine. To quote The Fabulous Thunderbirds, “this is powerful stuff”.
KEY CUTS: Child Don’t Go, Blues Prisoner, I Want To Go Back Hom
99 DEGREES Ericson Holt (Conch Town Records) *****
A riveting new record here from Key West pianist Ericson Holt. 99 Degrees is a collection of songs about characters that walk a fine line between hope and desperation as they navigate a world that seems perpetually stacked against them. This isn’t strictly the blues, but it is certainly blues in intent; like a good book, it’s hard to set down.
Musically speaking 99 Degrees is a rather agreeable meeting of 70’s AM rock, soulful folk and raucous boogie with the occasional injection of funk. As I listen to a track like Sweet On You I can’t help but think that would’ve been a good song for Eddie Rabbitt. Ericson cut the majority of the album in just 2 days with an All Star band of Nashville heavyweights, then finished it up in Key West and London. Working in such a way allowed for spontaneous, organic performances that breathe life into everyday folks living on the margins, looking for a little bit of light in the darkness.
Holt sums up the intent of these songs by noting that “There are very few moments in this life that are purely good or bad. There’s always some kind of dichotomy going on, some kind of complication, both in our character and our experience. How do we navigate our inner and outer lives, deal with the friction, and still find the love and joy that we all long for?” While I enjoy 99 Degrees on a strictly musical basis a great deal, the emotional connection here is huge. While I try and figure out what to do with the last quarter of my own life, along comes Ericson Holt with an album of songs trying to figure this sort of thing out too.
99 Degrees’ musical diversity goes all the way back to Holt’s childhood where pop, folk, rock, blues and country captured his imagination. He has a way with words too which, apparently, he comes by naturally… he inherited a passion for literature, along with his wide ranging musical appetite, from his mom; songwriter, poet and novelist A.H. Holt. You know the old saying- ‘the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree’.
From a musical and lyrical standpoint, 99 Degrees is one of the richest, deepest and most vibrant musical experiences I’ve had in a good long while. This is a rare experience that I cannot recommend highly enough.
KEY CUTS: I’m Gonna Pay, Walking In Our Sleep, Walkin’ On Bourbon Street
TWENTY THREE Rian (Frontiers) *** ½
When I think of Sweden it’s usually tall blonde chicks, Volvos, cheese, Ace Of Base and Abba- who recently announced their first new album in 40 years, by the way. But thanks to bands like Rian, good ol’ rock & roll is part of the equation too. Twenty Three is their sophomore release, a follow-up to 2017’s Out Of The Darkness. Think 80’s Journey meets Night Ranger; that gets you pretty close to what Rian is all about.
Singer/ guitarist Richard Andermyr describes their sound as “a modern version of classic melodic rock music, the way it was produced in the second half of the 80’s”, and that’s exactly what I’m hearing. He lists a wide range of influences too like Bon Jovi, Dokken, Europe, Survivor and Winger, but with the vibe of more modern acts like Alter Bridge. “The sound is American, but the melodies and chord progressions have very strong Swedish roots” he says.
Twenty Three is a punchy rock record, thanks no doubt to producer Daniel Flores. Andermyr has a solid rock voice, but it does have a bit of that anonymous mid-80’s feel to it; solid but not exactly exceptional- a good singer but he doesn’t really stand out from the crowd. Lead guitarist Tobias Jakobsson, on the other hand, is quite the gunslinger with solos that often lift the rest of the song up as he reaches for the sky. The rhythm section is drummer Jan Johansson and bassist Jonas Melin, who take a straightforward workman-like approach to holding down the beat and the bottom end, giving Richard and Tobias a solid and unshakeable foundation from which to work.
Where Twenty Three falls short is that there’s a certain predictability throughout the album, giving you a sense that you’ve heard all of this before by someone else; the guitar riffs filled out with keyboard textures and the predictability of the lyrics. This is an album that could have just as easily come on in 1986 as this past July. Though it sounds like I’m dumping on Twenty Three, I actually do enjoy the album but it doesn’t excite me, if you get the difference. Thanks mainly to Jakobsson’s guitar breaks, I’ll definitely be listening to this again.
KEY CUTS: Stop, We Belong, Stranger To Me