MEMPHIS MOONLIGHT Deb Ryder (VizzTone) *****++
The 5th album from this blues diva is a real barn burner. Memphis Moonlight is the right title for a cool blast of soul n blues with gospel oomph and rock & roll horsepower. Forceful and dynamic, this is one of those records that’s going to knock you over.
Produced by Grammy and Blues Music award winner Tony Braunagel, Memphis Moonlight has a tight, meaty, substantial sound. With a great band behind her, Ryder’s powerful voice is even more effective. It’s an impressive list of all-star musicians including Braunagel, Johnny Lee Schell, Mike Finnigan, Travis Carlton, Dieter Van/der Pluijm, Joe Sublett and Mark Pender. The special guest list includes Ronnie Earl and members of Los Lobos.
MM doesn’t just stay in one lane stylistically either as they cruise confidently through a myriad of styles from blues to traditional and contemporary roots with total mastery. With some singers you can feel them trying too hard, but Deb Ryder is the real deal; a chick blues singer with balls to spare, equal to Layla Zoe but smoother. The album has what a lot of other records wish they had- honest to God swagger. It’s no secret that some of the blues’ best singers like BB King come from gospel roots and there’s no mistaking that heat in these 13 tracks. Is that what makes you want to dance here, or is it the flames of Hell tickling the bottom of your feet? I’m good either way…
Memphis Moonlight really has that Memphis vibe down; the swing, the soul, the emotion and the willingness to address any subject, from the social justice issues of Get Ready to more personal stuff like Second Chances. Every now and again a record comes along that kicks you in the ass and makes you want to jump up and yell “Hey! Let’s get going!!”- Memphis Moonlight is that record. This isn’t just good, it’s great.
KEY CUTS: Blues Is All I Got, I’m Coming Home, Love Is Gone
STOP Robert Billard & The Cold Calls (independent) ****
Here is a new album from Robert Billard and it really kicks. If you’re from eastern Canada you might recognize his name- he got his start busking in Halifax and has shared stages with the likes of Barenaked Ladies and Great Big Sea. Oh- did I also mention he’s an architect who has designed buildings across the country? Stop gathers a virtual who’s who of Canadian music royalty to make a stunning blues/rock musical statement.
Last year Billard combined his passion for music and architecture when he designed and built Fifth Chord Studios, the high quality rehearsal, recording and live stream performance studio where Stop was laid down. This disc is a collection of songs from the dark times in Robert’s life as many of the best tunes tend to be, and others looking to find strength and joy. To realize these songs he assembled a frankly stunning cast of Canadian blues luminaries, who have earned a staggering 14 nominations and 6 wins at The Junos among them. That list includes JW Jones, Kenny “Blues Boss” Wayne, Gowan, Tony “Wild T” Springer and current Trooper drummer Clayton Hill.
Robert Billard has come along way since releasing a pair of original folk albums as The Oakfield Times in the early 90’s (Passages, This Land This Sea), with Stop being a muscular and funky blues adventure at the other end of the musical spectrum. He’s an average singer, but here that works in his favor. The Groove is built around a traditional blues riff, similar to a slowed down version of The Doors’ Roadhouse Blues that is quite frankly sexy as hell. The opening cut Road To Nowhere is one of the dark ones with some nice, greasy slide work, and the record ends on a note of troubled hope with a nice, lengthy bellyrubber of a duet called Home. In-between you’ll find a little bit of everything. Cool stuff.
KEY CUTS: Groove, Road To Nowhere, Home
26 EAST: VOLUME 2 Dennis DeYoung (Frontiers) ****+
Here is the former Styx singer’s follow-up to last years’ surprisingly excellent 26 East: Volume 1. “The last album was supposed to be my final album” Dennis says, “but there were so many songs written that Serafino Perugino (Frontiers CEO) suggested dividing it into two albums rather than one.” So, here we are with another opportunity to appreciate DeYoung’s skillful songwriting plus impeccable voice all over again, and I’m loving it.
I haven’t paid much attention to Styx since DeYoung’s Y2K departure and replacement by Canadian Lawrence Gowan, though I do have their covers album Big Bang Theory. No, to me the sound of that band will always involve Dennis’s voice. So, listening to 26 East: Volume 2 is not unlike listening to a classic Styx record. Even at the age of 74 that iconic voice still reaches for and grabs the big notes, his inherent sense of drama when he sings is both thrilling and refreshing, and he’s pretty damn good at tickling the ivories too. Timeless vocals and epic musicianship make for an excellent record.
Apparently the rub between Dennis and his former band mates (guitarists Tommy Shaw & JY Young) was their desire to pursue a harder rock direction while DeYoung’s writing and singing style has a distinct Broadway flair with a pop edge. One would hope that friction would make for better music (David Lee Roth used to say Van Halen’s creative process was fueled by hatred) but they just couldn’t keep it together. DeYoung has said recently that he’d be up for one last tour with the band to bury the hatchet and wrap things up for the fans, but Tommy Shaw says no. Lots of people helped out on 26 East 2, too many to mention, but Dennis’s son Matthew plays some drums, and Tom Morello plays the guitar solo on The Last Guitar Hero.
It bums me out that this is the last record we’ll get from Dennis, but 26 East: Volume 2 is a pretty good final bow. It’s a reminder of what a fine song craftsman he has been through the years, both in and out of Styx, and what the rock world will be missing. Yeah… this one is going to stay with me for awhile.
KEY CUTS: The Last Guitar Hero (with Tom Morello), Hello Goodbye, Isle Of Misanthrope
SUNNY SOUL Endrick & The Sandwiches (independent) *** ½
It’s only been 6 months or so since I last encountered this band and a live album called Green Room Rumble, so it’s pretty obvious how Endrick has been keeping himself busy during the pandemic. While GRR was more of a blues exercise, I think it’s fair to characterize Sunny Soul as upbeat, fun pop music with bluesy undercurrents. I like it.
As I noted when reviewing their last album, band leader Endrick Tremblay grew up in Mont-Tremblant, where he met many of the musicians who influenced him. He cut his teeth playing punk at house parties before being asked to join the Outsiders Blues Band, guys twice his age, steering him into a lifelong fascination with the blues. Endrick & The Sandwiches are a new wave blues act who avoid self importance while actively treating their audience to a hip shaking good time. Sunny Side is a virtual musical cookbook on how to go about having that good time. It’s pretty tough to maintain a foul mood when songs like Hot Spot or Cheeseburger Blues are playing. Go on- I DARE you! There’s even a rap section in How Do I Know About SC?
Sunny Soul was produced by Endrick and Steven Gibb with a soulful, grooving, breezy, upbeat vibe. While I tend to prefer real instruments and natural performances, the samples and grooves used here don’t sound or feel robotic or extraneous. The Sandwiches play their instruments joyously yet expertly, so nothing is sacrificed in terms of musicianship. They’re out for a good time, but they aren’t screwing around.
Sunny Soul’s easy going disposition belies any serious lyrical concerns as addressed in a short track like You Don’t Need A Crowd To Be A Star. If there’s an overall message to be gleaned from these 9 tracks it’s to go out there, enjoy life and don’t let things drag you down. I wasn’t expecting this so soon after their last album, but I’m glad it’s here.
KEY CUTS: Cheeseburger Blues, How Do I Know About SC?, Hot Spot, Doing Well (Sunny Soul)
SEEMS LIKE A DREAM Wilburt Lee Reliford (Big Legal Mess Records) *****+
Everybody loves a good story when it comes to the blues and this is a good ‘un. In 1989 Dutch folklorist Ko de Korte recorded a Wilburt Lee Reliford solo harmonica session. Now, 32 years after those initial sessions and 28 years after Reliford`s death, we have Seems Like A Dream. Half of these tunes are raw, unvarnished performances while the other half are fleshed out by an ace Memphis studio band. I have a feeling that if Wilburt could hear this album, he’d be grinnin’ in our faces.
A staple of the North Mississippi blues scene, Reliford was born in 1924 near Rossville TN, the hometown of Mississippi Fred McDowell, but Wilburt grew up near Chulahoma. He first picked up harmonica at 11, and soon after went blind from a ‘medical accident’. The brains behind Seems Like A Dream are co-producers Bruce Watson and Charlie Sexton. The group on the band tracks on this disc include Sexton on guitar, drummer George Sluppick from The Chris Robinson band and JJ Grey & Mofro, and Rick Steff on piano. Considering the sessions between Wilburt and the band took place decades apart, it sounds pretty together.
Pardon the pun, but putting this album on really does seem like a dream, a time travel story that takes us back to a simpler era. The solo tracks with just Reliford on harmonica and vocals are simple, raw and haunting, while the songs that feature a backing band (there are 6 of those) are just as emotive in a different way. I’m glad the guys were able to give those tunes an authentic groove and feel, as opposed to taking the unexpected treasure of these performances and trying to drag them into the 21st century. That would’ve been the wrong thing to do- for Wilburt, and for us too.
Seems Like A Dream is one of those blues records that really takes you back home, appearing through the mists of time cloaked in some kind of irresistible mojo. This isn’t the first time Bruce Watson has created this kind of recording, you only have to look as far back as 2019’s Jessie Mae Hemphill album for further evidence. Touched by the dust and magic of the Mississippi Delta, this is the kind of album us blues fans dream of.
KEY CUTS; Seems Like A Dream, Rock Me, Tappin’ That Thing
CLAD IN BLACK Helstar (Massacre Records) ****
Vampires plus hard rock equals high drama, and I offer into evidence the new release from Helstar. Clad In Black (a reference to Bram Stocker’s Dracula) is a 2 disc set; disc one contains the 2 songs from the Black Wings Of Solitude 45 released last October, plus 2 new tunes and some killer cover versions of Accept’s Restless & Wild, Black Sabbath’s After All (The Dead) and Judas Priest’s Sinner-fitting, given the vampiric focus of the material. Disc 2 is Helstar’s previous album Vampiro in its entirety, a concept record about Dracula. The hard driving music is a cross between Ripper-era Judas Priest and early 90’s Queensryche, and it’s quite cool.
Of the bloodsucking theme being explored here, singer James Rivera says “The vampire world is bigger than it ever was. You can’t go wrong when you choose to touch on the subject of the soulless beings with no reflection in the mirror, blueish skin, no pulse and a thirst for nice, warm blood whose only enemies are the cross, a wooden stake and the sun!”
I enjoy a good horror movie, and sometimes the bad ones are even more fun- but Clad In Black works for me most effectively on a musical level. As players, Helstar are impressive; Rivera has an operatic range like Tim Owens and has no problem digging down into the gritty stuff. Guitarists Larry Barragan and Andrew Atwood are solid and occasionally exciting players, plus the responsive rhythm section of bassist Garrick Smith and drummer Michael Lewis are just the sort of chaps you need in the engine room to turn this from average hard rock or metal into something really… steaming.
To anyone that’s not into metal, or at least classic metal, Clad In Black will sound impossibly cheesy- and they have a point, but to a riff connoisseur that is part of the appeal and the charm. I’m enjoying the performances, and as a 63 year old white guy staring down oncoming oblivion the fantasy angle is lyrical escapism that I can really get into. Not yet knowing the band I went into Clad In Black with no idea what to expect and came out with a vital piece of rock & roll that I am very much enjoying.
KEY CUTS: DISC ONE: Black Wings Of Solitude, Restless And Wild
DISC TWO: Blood Lust, To Their Death Beds They Fall