SOULFUNKN’ BLUES Blackburn Brothers (Electro-Fi) ****
This is one of the funkiest, most soulful blues records I’ve heard in years. Soulfunkn’ Blues will have you movin’ and groovin’ before you realize what’s happening. David Fricke of Rolling Stone- the music reviewer I wish I was- calls this “very funky, very charged and all heart.”
SFB effortlessly covers the history of the blues, from elemental emotions to modern production touches with the kind of connection that can only come from real brothers working together; Duane (lead vocals), Brooke (guitar), Cory (drums) and Robert (harmony vocals) Blackburn. This is a deep, rich sounding record that fills my music room with warmth and groove. Great horn parts give the songs energy and the lyrics fill your heart. Deft musicianship from the brothers plus Duane’s smoky voice are a real treat.
SoulFunkn’ Blues’s liner notes were written by Shakura S’Aida (recently reviewed here) and she gets right to the meat of it when she says their music is “authentic and always about a message of history; freedom, legacy, family, black unity and love.” She also says “you will move to the heavy riff filled soul blues, funky danceable blues, and deep groove-based blues. Listen to the lyrics and you will hear the stories of Black Canadians. It’s a tribute to 231 years of Canadian roots and blues.” While it’s good to have a record with lots of heart that talks about important cultural things, on a very basic level the music’s first job is to move you. I’m hearing more funk on the disc than blues, on par with 70’s Stevie Wonder plus maybe Sly & The Family Stone, and it’s an easy record to settle in with- almost effortless, really. I might be an older white guy but I’m also historically aware of the issues they take on with songs like Sister Rosa (it’s about Rosa Parks) and find their insights quite refreshing.
Soulfunkn’ Blues might speak to the black experience overall but it’s a record for everyone to enjoy. I’ll be hearing these songs in my head at work tomorrow and I’m looking forward to it.
HOT TRACKS: Sister Rosa, She’s A Heartbreaker, Freedom Train
POINTS OF LIGHT Noah Zacharin (Sonic Peach) ****
This is the 9th solo record for this stunningly gifted singer/ songwriter/ guitarist. Points Of Light is packed with vivid, poetic lyrical observations and great finger-style guitar playing that James Taylor fans will appreciate, Noah is described by Holger Petersen as “a stunning guitarist (with) no stylistic boundaries.” Throughout the many styles Zacharin employs on his acoustic guitar the songs go from intimate to jaunty and back again with ease.
Aside from being a talented guitar player Noah Zacharin is an award winning poet described as having “a remarkable ability to articulate efficient, powerfully condensed ideas”, and it is this facility that will draw you into Points Of Light. Oh sure the stunning musicianship is what you will notice first but it’s the storytelling that holds the real magic across these 11 songs. Bed Of Nails is a bluesy shuffle that examines the challenge of being human, album opener Ten Tons Of Road describes a fondly remembered romance, and Red Red Bird finds Noah’s heart soaring above the dust and dirt, a song of hope with a Latin vibe in a time of adversity and confusion. The help of friends like Gary Craig (drums), Kevin Breit (baritone, mandocello) and Roly Platt (harmonica) help make the sonic pictures NZ paints deeper and more vivid.
Recorded at Canterbury Sound (as were the late Lee Palmer’s albums), Points Of Light is a brilliant sounding album thanks to producer Danny Greenspoon. The arrangements overall are sparse and generous, except on rowdier numbers like Bed Of Nails and What Have I Got To Show For It that show Zacharin guiding the band through its paces. The heart of this record is the last song, Been A Long Day. With a more-than-a-decade-long creation process, it’s a profound meditation on love and mortality, complete with strings. It’s a sad but beautiful tune; the perfect way to bring the record to a close and worth the price of admission alone.
For me to like an album regardless of genre, it has to move me in some way… and Points Of Light does just that. It’s one of those records that gladly gives you more with each spin.
HOT TRACKS: Been A Long Day, Ten Tons of Road, What Have I Got To Show For It
SHOTGUN RIDGE Kyle Culkin (Tonebucker Records) ***
Kyle Culkin is an American songwriter, guitarist and roots musician and, no relation to MaCaulay that I know of. This is my first encounter with his music and, as a title like Shotgun Ridge indicates this disc feels more like country than anything else, but the twang is honest.
Culkin has worked over the past two decades as a multi-instrumentalist and guitarist for national acts like The Jeff Jensen Band. He opened for BB King on his 80th birthday tour, and the king of the blues proclaimed “this kid can play!” He is indeed a fine guitarist that doesn’t overplay as he drives the songs with simple yet imaginative melodies. When I say the album sounds more like country than anything else I mean it goes back to 70’s/ early 80’s stuff with perhaps a touch of Hank Williams thrown in, but I’m finding the pedal steel a bit much. Culkin has a warm voice that really invites you in to stay awhile and, aside from his band the list of featured artists include Albert Lee (guitar), Johnny Hiland (guitar), Ted Russell Kamp (vocals) and Max MacLaury (vocals, rhythm guitar). To be fair I should mention his guys too… aside from Kyle on guitars, bass and vocals we have Jade MacRae (backing vocals), Adam Gust (drums), Jamieson Trotter (keys) and Marty Rifkin on pedal steel. Americana Highways states that “this band brings their A game” and that’s a tough claim to dispute here.
Plenty of great playing on Shotgun Ridge but how you feel about it- and whether you warm to it at all- will depend on how vintage 70’s country sits with you because that’s what I’m picking up the most, something I really need to be in the mood for to fully receive. The spirited playing, particularly Culkin’s guitar work, is real easy to appreciate and there’s a warmth to the performances and the record overall that make it feel good to be around as he sings about a life most of us understand… not a bad way to spend a Friday night.
HOT TRACKS: Two More Bottles Of Wine, My Baby’s Gone, Angels Get Their Way
WRITING ON THE WALL Coco Montoya (Alligator Records) *****+
When you talk about great blues guitar players, Coco Montoya should be near or at the top of your list. Writing On The Wall is the definition of exciting blues, even better than 2019’a Coming In Hot, and I friggin’ LOVED that record. This one is a scorcher!
Coco is a left-handed player who plays on a left-handed neck but it’s strung right handed, and how he just tears it up and sounds this intense is beyond me. It might have something to do with how he got to where he is now; mentored on the instrument in his early days by Albert Collins, years as the featured lead guitarist in John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers and, of course a solo career that goes back to ’95 with a series of incendiary albums. Plus, like BB King and Buddy Guy before him, he’s also a great blues singer.
Writing On The Wall is a tour de force of fierce playing and memorable hook-laden songs. Coco wrote or co-wrote 5 of these 13 songs, plus he re-invents Lonnie Brooks’s Stop. Lee Roy Parnell lays down some righteous slide on A Chip And A Chair, and Ronnie Baker Brooks (Lonnie’s son) joins in on the fun on Baby You’re A Drag and adds some real heat to Bobby Bland’s You Got Me. The disc is a well balanced mix of smokin’ hot playing and gut-wrenching slow blues that just reach into the ol’ chest cavity to punch you in the heart.
With Writing On The Wall Montoya climbs higher with his melodic, soaring guitar work and soulful, passionate vocals that, on a song like Stop, can make you weep. He squeezes every ounce of emotion from each note he sings and plays- after my first time through here I felt wrung out, but ready to go again. For my money the best music reaches in deep to connect and make you feel something… Coco Montoya is an expert at that, and Writing On The Wall is one of the best records of the year, blues or otherwise.
HOT TRACKS: Stop, I Was Wrong, (I’d Rather Feel) Bad About Doin’ It
CLASSY WOMAN Mizz Lowe (Mizz Lowe Records) *****
This is the debut for Mizz Lowe. Classy Woman is an intoxicating swirl of blues, R&B, southern soul, pop, A/C and hip-hop with a whiff of country that will knock you off your feet. Her sultry voice over a rich, lush music bed is about at seductive as it gets.
Lowe got her start as a background dancer for two times Grammy blues artist winner Bobby Rush, and has also toured the world as Bobby’s opening act. Classy Woman is sexy and sultry in its sounds as well as the very grooves themselves, and it was co-produced by Rush. More R&B than blues, the album sees Mizz Lowe flirt effortlessly with every genre of music with every note and every riff. There’s a voluptuous smoothness to the disc that is nigh on hypnotic, and quite frankly it’s sexy as hell, even on upbeat party numbers like Drink Drink. As it says in the press info “Just as sirens summon the sailors to the rock, so will listeners embrace the silky, golden rhapsody voice of Mizz Lowe.” I know that sounds like PR bullshit and hyperbole but give the album- even a single track- one spin and you’ll be a believer.
Classy Woman is 10 original songs, co-written and produced by Lowe and Rush, who also lends his voice to 6 of the tracks. Their vocals are a natural blend, giving an excitement and je ne sais quois to the tracks themselves and the album overall. Are they also a romantic item? No idea… but this album makes it feel that’s a distinct possibility. Check out the mid-tempo ballad This Love, surely a wedding song for the ages. There’s an old-fashioned pop charm to Classy Woman that makes me think of the Earth, Wind & Fire singles I used to play on the radio as a young deejay back in the 70’s, but with decidedly modern production values that startle with the richness and depth of sound on every track.
Classy Woman is a wonderful record, sonically and emotionally- I wouldn’t change a note.
HOT TRACKS: Honey Tree, This Love, Drink Drink
RIDIN’ THE BLINDS Hudspeth & Taylor (independent) *****++
It happens… as my wife & I prepare for a life-altering move to the west coast (Victoria on Vancouver Island) some stuff will get lost between the cracks and this album was one of those but hey, better late than never. Ridin’ The Blinds has been on my desk since the end of May and I’m just getting to it now. The latest from Brandon Hudspeth (guitar) and Jaisson Taylor (vocals, percussion) is 12 songs, all steeped in the traditions of Mississippi Delta blues, mostly from the 20’s an 30’s. It’s like a blues history lesson from a modern perspective.
“Riding The Blinds is an old hobo term” Hudspeth explains. “It’s about trying to get somewhere. A guy doesn’t have a ticket so he rides between the cars, they used to call that riding the blinds; in the 20’s and 30’s musicians used to do that a lot to get from town to town. That’s the idea of (this) record, traveling from old to new.” Jaisson Taylor’s voice is rich and deep in resurrecting these old songs with his elemental percussion providing just the right drivetrain for the songs. Brandon Hudspeth is a stunning guitarist that plays intuitively, and together with Taylor’s singing the results are impressive. “Most of these songs are pre-war Delta blues” he says. “We wanted to bring back some of those old melodies people haven’t heard for years, maybe even decades. The phrasing and harmonic sense of that period might even sound foreign today. We added some things too, especially with arrangements and layering of instruments.”
Acoustic blues records tend to be on the bare side but Hudspeth & Taylor’s approach to these old numbers is definitely not that. Yes the arrangements sound simple, but with Huspeth’s lively picking coming from the left and right speakers at the same time gives the songs a fullness, and there’s more to them than you might think. According to Jaisson Taylor “the phrasing on those older songs, the way lyrics are repeated, there’s a lot of cool things in there that are not simple and primitive like the way people tend to think of old blues.”
Ridin’ The Blinds is sheer blues magic- end of story.
HOT TRACKS: Blues In The Bottle, Hard Time Killing Floor Blues, Parchman Farm Blues
MOMENTS IN TIME Babaux & The Peacemakers (independent) ****+
Nine months after releasing their critically acclaimed debut 13, this Colorado band is back with another album. Moments In Time sees Babaux & The Peacemakers honing their roots rock blues attack for an album of grit, groove and soul, like 90’s Steve Earl meets Muddy Waters.
The band is Cristian Basso (aka Babaux) on vocals and resonator guitar, Eric Martinez on lead guitar, plus Alana & Niel Velvis on drums and bass respectively. It pays to have a solid rhythm section but to my ears Moments In Time gets its mojo from the interplay between Babaux’s resonator and Martinez’s nasty slide and judicious lead breaks. Let’s not discount Basso’s vocals either, carrying the same passion of expression as Eddie Vedder.
Moments In Time embraces a number of styles within the roots rock playbook, from swampy blues that would give John Fogerty a pup tent to acoustic-based rock straight out of the 70’s with a series of multi-layered roots grooves, and vocals that “sit like a butter patty on warm bread, solely melting with soul, taste and patience.” It’s like wallowing in the Mississippi mud, even though these guys are from Colorado. Basso is the creative driving force in this band, having songwriting credits with Eric Lindel. As a musician he played bass with Bo Diddley and Leo Nocentelli of The Meters. Judging from the songs he writes, Cristian spent most of that time listening and absorbing everything he could from those masters- it shows.
There’s a Southern-ness to Moments In Time that can be felt throughout the album, as much in the songwriting and sound as the attitude and feel of the thing, not to mention the mid-tempo gait of much of the material. Skynyrdly? Perhaps not, but then not too far off either. Like a deer caught in the headlights on a dark country road, this disc has captured my attention.
HOT TRACKS: Always Be Mine, Call It What You Will, Ride Of Your Life
STICKS & STRINGS EG Kight (Blue South Records) **** ¾
This lady really knows how to sing the blues. EG Kight’s new album, Sticks & Strings, is a simple and straightforward acoustic blues adventure that covers familiar emotional territory within the genre. With a voice that CityBeat Cincinnati calls “a cross between Bonnie Raitt’s bourbon stung growl and Phoebe Snow’s emotive warble”, this is the real deal.
I first became aware of EG Kight when Lisa Biales mentioned her during a phone interview. Sticks & Stones is well-crafted songs delivered with her irresistible spirit and genuine southern charm. Ranging from resignation about a failed relationship in All Things Considered to the fun/ rootsy story about what’s gotten her through the tough times of God, Goats and Guitars (with her mom on backing vocals), this is really a record about relationships- as any blues record worth its salt should be, and there’s emotional comfort in that. I don’t know if ‘laid back’ is the right term to use here, but this disc is easy to be around.
Sticks & Strings features the EG Kight trio; EG along with Gary Porter (drums, harmonica) and Ken Wynn (lead guitar, dobro), whom she affectionately calls “her boys”. It may be the acoustic based sound or the somewhat relaxed pace throughout, but I was able to get into the songs with almost no effort at all. It feels like the sound of 3 people just whipping out their instruments to jam and having fun doing so. As I think on it some more I have to say that EG’s voice is closer to Phoebe Snow than Bonnie Raitt, these songs wrap themselves around you like a comfy blanket on a chilly fall day… not a bad way to spend an evening.
Somewhere between hypnotic and spellbinding, EG Kight’s Sticks & Stones is fine company.
HOT TRACKS: If You Have No Reservations, Gods Goats & Guitars, Two Sides To Every Story