DEEP DARK DEMON Mark May (Gulf Coast Records) ****
If you want rafter shakin’, soul quakin’, baby makin’ blues, Mark May is your guy. Deep Dark Demon is his 7th CD… part Albert Collins, SRV, Carlos Santana and Dickie Betts, this is some righteous fire ‘n’ brimstone blues from deep in the heart of Texas.
To the list of guitar players above I’d add Jeff Healey, Mark plays with that kind of controlled recklessness. Deep Dark Demon (not unlike his last album Blues Heaven) is a master class in blues guitar, loaded with gutsy playing and tight grooves. On my first pass I was feeling some Santana-like smoothness and occasional Latinesque grooves, and some of the stacked guitar harmonies sounded like something Queen’s Brian May might do if he were to do a straight up blues record. We are in the hands of a master.
No idea if it’s the drinking water or Lone Star beer, but there is something about Texas blues guitar players, something extra (the Vaughan boys, Johnny Winter, Billy Gibbons, etc), an extra ferocity that even Chicago’s finest can’t quite touch. There’s a primal quality to the musicianship on Deep Dark Demon that makes the title appropo and the songs themselves quite memorable. The Mark May Band cut their teeth on the Texas blues scene where it’s survival of the fittest, they’ve played numerous festivals across the country, and that mileage shows here in the best possible way. When you listen to these blues there’s no doubt that Mark and his band understand it and they’ve lived it too.
I love the way Deep Dark Demon keeps shifting gears too, from the hard blues of the title track or Harvey’s Dirty Side to a soulful ballad like For Your Love with a sweet sax solo. This disc has the feel particularly of Collins and Stevie mixed with some Santana and a side of Allmans… not southern rock exactly, but not too far off either. I was a 70’s kid so much of the rock & roll I grew up on was blues based, and DDD is giving me a contact high. This is one hot ‘n’ juicy album.
KEY CUTS: Harvey’s Dirty Side, Deep Dark Demon, Back
SOUTHERN SON Jeff Fetterman (independent) ****
Some sneaky blues here. I put this baby on as I puttered around the music room, but slowly dropped what I was doing to just close my eyes, sit and listen. To borrow a line from Deeds with Adam Sandler,, ‘I underestimated the sneakiness.’ Southern Son is a soulful blues record that will fill you right up.
Jeff Fetterman is one of those guitar players that will make sure the blues remain alive and well. His inspirations include Kenny Wayne Sheperd, SRV and, of course, BB King. Southern Son has been 2 years in the making, being put together at Kid Andersen’s Greaseland Studios in California. Kid, producer of such acts as Rick Estrin & The Night Cats says that “Jeff and his band are top notch. (He) plays and sings his ass off… it was an absolute joy to make music with these guys.”
From the first track I Don’t Want To, Fetterman and the band display an elastic grip on grooves and tempos. Throw Jeff’s guitar playing on top, and there are times it will remind you of Stevie Ray & Double Trouble. The album I have is 12 tracks, all originals. Two of those are bonus cuts, and we also have a rather delicious version of All Along The Watch Tower, written by Bob Dylan and now owned, of course, by Jimi Hendrix- even Bob himself says that. This band is 8 guys including a 3 piece horn section and a keyboard player, making music together like they were born for just that purpose.
Jeff Fetterman’s band has the same taste for musical adventure that Rick Estrin & the Night Cats have, so it was no surprise to find out that Kid Andersen has recorded and produced them too. When I’m not marveling at the musicianship on Southern Son, I’m diving deep into lyrical tales like Memphis Sky, whose first line is “I traveled down this road, through the heat of the night/ Springsteen’s on the radio, now I’ve got you on my mind”. You can feel that too, can’t you? Southern Son is unexpectedly excellent.
KEY CUTS: Memphis Sky, Feels Like Rain, Voodoo Funk
MIDNIGHT EMPIRE One Desire (Frontiers) **
Forming in 2012, this is One Desire’s 2nd record. Midnight Empire is commercial rock with muscle, not unlike mid-period Rainbow- not my favorite era for that band. This is good, it’s solid- but not a thrill ride.
Frontiers is a record label that specializes in melodic hard rock, and One Desire certainly fits their mandate. The songs on Midnight Empire feature plenty of palm-muted riffing, the solos from Jimmy Westerlund remind me, at times, of a young Zakk Wylde, but I’m hearing keyboards farther up in the mix than they need to be. Remember Kiss’s Crazy Nights from ’87? Decent rock album, but producer Ron Nevison’s overuse of keys reduced a good album to a ‘meh’ one, which I listen to about as much as The Elder.
But this is a One Desire review, so let’s get back to that. After a big tour that included festival appearances to support their successful self titled debut, One Desire hit the studio at the beginning of 2018 to start writing and working on the follow-up. Midnight Empire is a more mature album that looks to expand the band’s base with a more deliberately commercial sound. There are flashes of adventurousness throughout, but not enough for my taste.
I like the band as players- Jimmy Westerlund, guitars… Andre Linman, vocals… Ossi Sivula, drums… Jonas Kuhlberg, bass- but have to wonder if a harder, more metallic approach might have served the songs better. I wish Midnight Empire was crunchier, grittier, not as pretty, but I suspect that view is at odds with how OD fans are embracing this record, and that’s fine. I like this, I really do, but it’s not love at first spin- sorry guys.
KEY CUTS: Killer Queen, Shadowman, Down and Dirty
THE COLDWATER SESSIONS JD Taylor (Vizztone) ***
After 25-plus years fronting Tennessee’s Little Boys Blue (yes, I have a couple of their albums), JD Taylor is finally stepping out with his first solo release. The Coldwater Sessions is equal parts soul ‘n’ blues; music from the heart, for the heart.
The Coldwater Sessions is a brilliant showcase for Taylor’s soulful songwriting, recalling the Stax sound, Bill Withers and The Meters. The album is a back-roads tour from Memphis to North Mississippi, a humid collection of songs that cling to you with marvelous musicianship and, of course, JD’s wonderful voice. The disc was recorded and produced by engineer Kevin Houston at the legendary Zebra Ranch Studio, founded by the late Jim Dickinson. The place is in North Mississippi near Coldwater, so now we know where the album title comes from.
The Coldwater Sessions is all about the feeling and the vibe; like blues, roots, Americana and soul getting together to have a good time. That’s how the disc hits you at first… you listen and just feel it the first time or two, then you start digging in deeper to find out what’s going on here; at least that’s how it worked for me. I listened to Coldwater twice yesterday after work and thought “nope, not ready to write about it yet”, but now that we’re casual acquaintances the conversation can begin.
I’m feeling some Louisiana in here too but maybe that’s just me. Besides JD on harp and vocals we’re hearing the Rev. Charlie Hodges on B-3, and the Grammy nominated singers from the band “Southern Avenue”. The production sound feels organic and natural, not all tarted up like some skanky, slick, big city production. The music is just happening as the songs unfold, with all the musicians really feeling each other’s performances, and that’s what you want- particularly with this type of stuff. All of which just goes to say that JD Taylor’s Coldwater Sessions is cool… real cool.
KEY CUTS: Honey Honey Baby, Cocomo, Nothing Left To Say
BEST FOR LAST Pete Thelen (independent) *** ½
On March 10th for his 71st birthday (according to his website), Chicago-born Pete Thelen released what he says is his last album. His life has been a long, strange journey to lead to this collection of a dozen originals. Chicago blues with something of a bayou heart, this will become one of your favorite blues albums in short order.
Just to give you a quick idea of who Thelen is; he grew up in Chicago listening to rock & roll, left to join the army, was sent to Germany, where he got the first taste of a wider world. When he came back, he put a band together with some friends. Then, as so often happens, life intervened- marriages, children, responsibilities. He traded in his mic for a briefcase and went on to make his mark in the corporate world. Years later it was off to Arizona, where the next step of his musical journey began.
Best For Last is sublime, with the sound and feel of a final record, that ‘looking back on life and what does it all mean’ sort of thing that the blues is so very good at, particularly the song Thought Passing Through. “It speaks to how I feel when I leave the family I love, to do what I love” Pete says, “it’s a dilemma for me as an artist.” He brought in his friend Hans Christian to play some cello because “I knew he could capture how I was feeling with his soulful, melancholy touch.” As for the title of the record he says he titled it Best For Last “because it is.”
Chicago and the bayou vibe aside, there’s a spacey melancholy weaving in and out too, most noticeable on songs like Voodoo King with bongos, echoey voices in the background and keyboards for what I think of as a Doors vibe. On the slower, greasy acoustic numbers, Thelen shows us some serious mojo (try Wind Up From Mexico), a sparse track that is very much traditional blues, the kind of stuff that makes you close your eyes as you nod along.
Pete Thelen says Best For Last is his final record and if that turns out to be the case, then it’s a pretty good one to go out on.
KEY CUTS: Lost And Found, Wind Up From Mexico, Thought Passing Through
ROCK & ROLL Christone “Kingfish” Ingram (Alligator) ****
Another digital single from this amazing young blues artist. The song title and a familiarity with Kingfish’s debut album led me to expect something completely different. Far from his usual fire and brimstone fretwork, this is a gentle acoustic ballad dedicated to his mother, who passed away in December.
Rock & Roll was originally composed by Nashville-based songwriters Sean McConnell and Ashley Ray. Kingfish has adapted and personalized the song as a tribute to his mom Princess Pride. She was a single mother who worked countless hours to make certain Christone could learn and succeed, in music and in life. “It’s a song about my relationship with my biggest champion- my mom” Christone says. “The true to life lyrics reflect my mom’s dedication to me as her son. I would not be where I am today without her unwavering support.” Ashley Ray, one of the original songwriters, says “I’m honored that Christone was able to see his family in the song.”
Rock & Roll is a gentle, heartfelt ballad for the most part, but when Kingfish steps up for his passionate solos, the hair on your arms will stand up. This is a song everybody can relate to; whether you have a parent, sibling or other champion in your life pushing on to greater things, or if that’s something you only wish you had. Either way, this is one of the most inspiring songs you’ll hear in 2020.
iHEART RADIO THEATER Blue Oyster Cult (Frontiers) **+
It really has been the year of the live album for these New York area rockers, as the record company greases the wheels for an upcoming studio album but reminding everyone what a great live act they are. iHeart Radio Theatre, recorded in 2012, is arguably one of the better sets I’ve heard from BOC. It was performed at the intimate venue in NYC before a small, lucky audience of fans, arranged to celebrate the band’s 40th anniversary and the release of the then-new The Columbia Albums Collection.
One thing that makes iHeart superior to other live BOC albums I’ve reviewed in the last while is that it’s so much easier to control the sound in a smaller venue. Plus the musicians don’t grand-stand and play to an audience half a mile away in the lower balcony. The gig was recorded by an army of cameramen for a special webcast, and it has just been commercially released in CD, DVD, Blu-Ray and vinyl.
A good balance of songs here; the classic hits that you know and expect from the 70’s and early 80’s along with numbers I’m not immediately familiar with. Like so many bands with a shadow as long as Blue Oyster Cult’s, there have been numerous personnel changes over the years. In 2012 the band was mainstays Eric Bloom on guitar, keys and vocals, plus Donald “Buck Dharma” Roeser on guitar and vocals. Rounding out the band here are Richie Castellano on guitar, keys and vocals and drummer Jules Radino. It’s kind of like Whitesnake; as long as David Coverdale is singing it’s still the ‘Snake, and as long as Eric and Buck are in the band, it will always be Blue Oyster Cult.
The performances are spot-on, but with BOC being decades past any significant commercial success the real question is does anybody care? iHeart Radio Theater was never going to top the charts, but to be closing in now on 50 years as a band there are people out there listening. Sure I’ve lost touch with what the group’s been up to over the years, but I’m really digging this. Oh- they have another live album coming shortly too.
KEY CUTS; Cities On Flame With Rock & Roll, Burnin’ For You, Shooting Shark
HEARTACHE AND TOIL Jon Strahl Band (independent) ***
Looks like the third album here for The Jon Strahl Band out of Indianapolis. Heartache And Toil is deep fried blues seasoned with rock & roll. With nods in several different directions, sometimes all at once, this disc will take you for a pretty good ride.
Heartache And Toil takes you from Muscle Shoals to the British invasion, garage rock and vintage soul, all in a blues framework. Strahl’s blues love affair began even before he sprouted his first pubes. “I grew up in a house with music, and it was almost always rock & roll” he remembers. “The first thing I really felt a connection to was this Sunday night radio show on WTTS called Blues Sunday. It featured all the real icons, from Charlie Patton through Muddy and Wolf, all that. I was like 10 or 11 years old and when I heard it, it was like it was from outer space- but it also felt like home.”
Call it blues that rocks or rockin’ blues if you prefer, but H&T is always within reach of one or the other, often at the same time. All songs are credited to the full band, which aside from Jon on vocals and guitar includes; bassist Mitch Millhoff, Nick Mallers on drums and Bill Mallers on keys, plus a horn section. Heartache And Toil was recorded, mixed and produced by Tyler Watkins and Alex Kercheval, creating a kind of natural sound; not too crowded or fussy, allowing the music to flow. There’s a raggedness to songs like How Long that just captures an attitude which really strikes a chord for me, pun not entirely intended- just really cool stuff.
Of the blues he was hearing as a kid Strahl says that “there was something elemental and universal about the emotion and things they were doing that immediately resonated with me”, and that’s how it is with Heartache And Toil; a straightforward, honest, rockin’ blues record that will be good company when you need to get up and get down at the same time.
KEY CUTS: How Long, The Weight I Feel, Indiana Moonrise
GODLESS LAND The Lucky Losers (Vizztone) ****+
So hard not to fall in love with this band every time out. The Lucky Losers are a male/ female fronted band out of Frisco and this is their 4th album. Godless Land is an album for these times… while some of the songs might obliquely address some of today’s societal stresses, it’s also a swingin’ record about enjoying life and having a good time.
Godless Land is a sumptuous musical journey through the bawdy, jazzy blues of the 20’s, jump/ swing of the 50’s and Tin Pan Alley, with an affectionate embrace of truly groovy R&B and soul circa the early 70’s. The Lucky Losers are the vocal duo of Cathy Lemons and Phil Berkowitz, backed by an insanely talented band expertly guided by producer/ engineer/ multi- instrumentalist Kid Andersen. This is a great sounding record, and I’m particularly impressed with how the drums were recorded; powerful and articulate, a good base for the other instruments (plus Cathy & Phil) to work from.
Another one of Godless Land’s redeeming features is the contrast between Berkowitz’s introspective songwriting style, and Lemons’ up-front commentary on today’s tragic state of affairs. These are the kind of songs that make you think about stuff- yourself and/or the world around you- with an implied intimacy that doesn’t feel forced. The shifting between musical styles makes for a nice journey too, with Lemon’s vocals and Berkowitz’s singing and piercing harp style being the proverbial cherry on top of this particular cake. 9 of the songs are originals (6 by Cathy, 3 by Phil & Danny Caron), with another 3 being rare gems made for vocal duet.
Some records just sound really good technically, and there are lots of those that I enjoy on a regular basis. A great record is one that sounds good as it sidles up to you and, before you know it, just takes you somewhere else for awhile. That’s what Godless Land is; a great record. Street date: Aug.14th.
KEY CUTS: Godless Land, Leave You By The Side Of The Road, The Good Fight
WORLDS BEYOND Paralydium (Frontiers) ***
Progressive melodic rock out of Sweden, Paralydium’s follow-up to their debut EP of 2015. Appropriately, Worlds Beyond is the sound of worlds colliding; the muscle and forcefulness of well-played hard rock with the grandeur and majesty of classical music, string textures created by keyboards. It’s pretty happening.
“The writing process for this album started soon after our first release back in 2015” says guitarist John Berg. “When the songs started to really come together, I began to feel that they had a certain interplay with each other which got me to thinking on making this a conceptual album. As a result, the outcome is something more than an ordinary album.” As you listen, you get the feeling that these songs belong together, sonically and otherwise, although each is capable of standing on its own as well. There’s a level of musical excitement going on here that I don’t usually find in Euro-metal.
Throwing this on reminded me of hearing an album years ago by a German band called “Poverty’s No Crime”; I was immediately transfixed by the musicianship, a musical thrill ride that I still enjoy from time to time. World’s Beyond is like that for me too; a thundering, precise rhythm section (drummer Georg Harnsten Egg, bassist Jonathan Olsson), acrobatic, shredding lead guitar (John Berg), atmospheric keyboard textures (Mikael Blanc) and perhaps the best rock vocalist I’ve heard since Robin Zander in Mikael Sehlin. It’s like listening to Kansas’s head-banging younger brother.
Worlds Beyond satisfies on so many levels… hard hitting heavy riffs, powerful grooves, occasional whipsaw time changes and textured landscapes that do indeed transport you to another world in a Rick Wright neo-Floydian way. When you combine hard rock with classical sensibilities you can expect plenty of drama, and that’s what this record delivers. When they pull it back for a bit on a song like The Source, the contrast of the elements at play is even more striking. Never heard of Paralydium before today, but I’m a fan now.
KEY CUTS: Finding The Paragon, The Source, Seeker of The Light
CRY OUT Kat Riggins (Gulf Coast Records) ****+
Riggins` new album, her first for Gulf Coast, is a real barn burner. Produced by label chief Mike Zito, Cry Out is a full set of original contemporary healing blues.
I haven’t been this wowed by a female vocalist since Shemekia Copeland. Cry Out is everything a blues album should be; good time foot-stompers, hard driving tunes with attitude and, of course, those slow sweaty grooves that sound oh so good when the lights are down low. The general feeling of this album is strength in unity and courage in the face of oppression, inspiring hope and peace, self-confidence for those lacking it, humility for those who need it, and positive change for everyone. Noble ambitions all, but one fact remains; in its own bluesy way, this flat-out rocks.
Though the blues is her central touchstone, Kat was inspired as a kid by the variety and abundance in her parents’ record collection. As a result, the music she makes is peppered with hints of R&B, soul, country, gospel, hip-hop and rock & roll. As a singer she’s been compared to Koko Taylor, Etta James and Tina Turner- not, I might add, without justification. On Cry Out, whether she’s belting out a rocker or purring over a sultry ballad, her performance throughout is passionate and intimate… a sure sign that she is quite comfortable with her considerable gifts as a singer. What Riggins loves about singing the blues is also why so many of us enjoy listening to it- “It’s about the raw emotion in every note” she says. If a guitar solo or outstanding vocal performance has ever made the hair on your arm stand up, then you know exactly what she means.
Scorching vocal performances one after the other and exactly the right musicians for these songs make Cry Out one of the best albums of this deeply bent year in any genre. It’s not just good or even great, it’s EXCITING.
KEY CUTS: Son Of A Gun, The Storm, Burn It All Down