HERE AND NOW Ellis Mano Band (independent) ****
Los Angeles has the Wrecking Crew and The Funk Brothers, Switzerland has these guys; top flight studio musicians and elites from their music scene. Chris Ellis (vocals), Edis Mano (guitars, producer), Nico Looser (drums) and Severin Graf (bass) have pooled their considerable talents to come up with a tasty little gem.
These guys have spent years backing up others but, after a year long collaboration, they’re making music they can call their own; an intense and occasionally hypnotic set of rock and blues inspired songs. As the bio says Chris Ellis’s singing voice is “like Kentucky bourbon; smooth as glass with an addictive burn.” Songs like A Lifetime are haunting, the blues of a man at the end of his rope, with Ellis’s voice being the fulcrum on which everything else swings. They can rock, but there’s blues in every note played.
Say ‘Switzerland’ and I think of chocolate, Volvos, Abba and Ace Of Base- not really cool stuff like this. “Making this music was a beautiful experience” says Ellis, “and I hope we have that many times again.” I suppose this is proof that the blues is truly an international language- in the opening line of Bad news Blues, Chris sings “I’ll keep my pride, and she’ll keep my car/ she’s talking to the girls in the lounge, I’m with the boys in the bar”. We’ve all been there. Great sounding album too- clean but not too tidy. Throw Here And Now on your CD player you’ll fall for it- hard.
KEY CUTS: Bad News Blues, A Lifetime, I Want You Back
TRAVELIN’ WOMAN Mary Lane (Women Of The Blues Records) *****
To sing the blues with real authority, having serious mileage helps. At the age of 83, Travelin’ Woman is just Mary’s 2nd solo release. She’s smooth, strong and rough, with a real ‘been there’ style that will knock your socks off.
“Mary Lane is the last of the blues singers who came up from the south to Chicago. She is the real deal” says Buddy Guy, and he would know. Grammy winning producer Jim Tullio has assembled a tight, swinging band, plus guests like Eddie Shaw and Colin Linden dropping by doesn’t hurt. The songs are basic and raw but well played, with Lane supplying some deeply moving lyrics and vocals. “I just came up singing as the music played” Mary says. “I just come up with the lyrics in my head, and go with the music… so that’s the way I did all of them.”
A few years ago, Alligator Records founder Bruce Iglauer told me that the appeal of the blues is that “it’s unpretentious, honest music”, which this certainly is. Mary has been a blues singer on the west side of Chicago for the last six decades and this follows 20 years after her debut. People always talk about ‘authenticity’, and when it comes to the blues Mary Lane is as authentic as it gets. There’s a documentary called I Can Only Be Mary Lane that tells Mary’s story, her struggles and triumphs, up to and including the making of Travelin’ Woman that I have GOT to get my hands on. Real deal Chicago blues doesn’t get any more pure than this.
KEY CUTS: Raining In My Heart, Blues Give Me A Feeling, Make Up Your Mind
ACOUSTIC SESSIONS Mike Goudreau (PMG) ****
An all acoustic affair for Goudreau’s 20th album. Mike revisits his musical roots on Acoustic Sessions with smooth and extremely satisfying results.
Acoustic Sessions is 10 new compositions and 4 redone tracks from Mike’s past in a delightfully organic blend of blues, Americana, country, gospel and singer/ songwriter style numbers, even a Manouche Jazz inspired song. Goudreau wears his musical influences on his sleeve here as he gives us a guided tour of the music he grew up on.
As with his other albums, Mike surrounds himself here with wonderfully talented players. Recorded, mixed and mastered by longtime collaborator David Elias, Acoustic Sessions is a warm, organic sounding album that technically and artistically stands as tall as anything else in this genre. You’ve probably heard his music without realizing it, on shows like “Chicago PD” and Jerry Seinfeld’s “Comedians In Cars Getting Coffee”.
Mike Goudreau has a warm and friendly voice that blends seamlessly with the subtle acoustic guitar and Dobro slide work throughout, not to mention the colorful shading provided by cello, upright bass and percussion. Acoustic Sessions is, as the title suggests, a quietly meditative listen with lively shifts offered by accordionist Didier Dumoutier.
Despite accolades from peers and blues music reviewers (like me), Goudreau remains one of Canada’s best kept secrets, but Acoustic Sessions has the mojo to change that. When I play his songs on my UDJ show out of London, I hope you’ll be listening.
KEY CUTS: She Talks Too Much, Bread And Water, The Blues Is Killing Me
STILL TRYIN’ TO BELIEVE Peter Rogan (Melt Shop Records) *****+
A powerful debut from guitarist/ singer/ songwriter/ steelworker Peter Rogan. Releasing a full length cd has been a lifelong dream, and Still Tryin’ To Believe is rock solid.
Peter has played guitar guitarist around Philadelphia for decades, and is also an electrician at a steel mill. In June 2014 he participated in a songwriting camp in Maryland, which gave him the confidence to give this a go. Inspired, he wrote enough songs for an album; something he hadn’t dared try before, but now he had the material to make it happen. In 2016 he loaded up his van and headed to Nashville for the recording sessions at Butcher Shoppe Recording Studio, owned by David Ferguson and John Prine. He took the tracks home, edited them, added extra guitar parts, Hammond, percussion, lead and vocal tracks, the result of which is playing in my headphones right now.
There’s an emotional honesty to Believe that makes it hard to shake. As for the disc title, Peter says “it’s related to faith, and how hard that can be sometimes. Faith in God, faith in our country and others, but faith in one’s self and one’s dream especially.” I expect this is where most people will hook up, perhaps asking their own questions of faith. It’s that ability to connect that will drive the success of this album. I’ve never met Peter Rogan, but it feels like I know him. After listening to Still Tryin’ To Believe, I think he knows me too.
KEY CUTS: Kickin’ The Can, Still Tryin’ To Believe, Song For Keith
IN THE MIDDLE OF NOWHERE John Clifton (Rip Cat Records) *** ¾
Where Chicago blues meets west coast California blues and hard 50’s style R&B is where we meet John Clifton. The Middle Of Nowhere gathers these things on one disc, seasons them with some swingin’ jazz plus a taste of country and BOOM! Magic.
Middle is the follow-up to Clifton’s critically acclaimed 2018 release Nightlife , a high energy affair with 5 all-new originals plus covers of songs by artists like Lightning Slim and Merle Haggard. It really says something that these tunes can hang together as a cohesive artistic statement. This disc feels like one of the band’s shows, and no wonder- “The new record is the live band, the guys I play with every night” John comments, “so it definitely has more of a live feel to it.”
Produced by Clifton, In The Middle Of Nowhere was recorded in Fresno. His voice was born to sing the blues, and his nimble harp work leads the charge. His talents have led to on stage invites from the late James Cotton, Rod Piazza, Kim Wilson and even Huey Lewis, so he can hold his own with the bad cats. His band has a great feel too, riding any and all grooves with ease, and a track like the down and dirty Four Years Ago is worth the price of admission alone.
In The Middle of Nowhere is straight from the heart and straight from the guts.
KEY CUTS: Four Years Ago, Cool Spot In Hell, So Tired I Could Cry
CATCH THE WESTBOUND The Lucas Haneman Express (independent) ****
Here is the follow-up to 2016’s Tearing Up The Rails. Brash and loaded to the gunwales with maximum bluesiosity, this band from Ottawa has made an arresting, vital disc.
Westbound is not perfect, with most of the tracks have a real ‘going for it’ power- a perfect imperfection. The Express is Lucas Haneman on guitars and vocals, Jeff Asselin on drums, Megan Laurence on vocals and Martin Newman on bass and vocals. Jeff and Martin lay down some fat grooves for Lucas to soar over with his rough n ready leads, and Megan’s voice adds some sweetness. The entire band is credited with songwriting and Lucas with lyrics. They produced the disc too, recording in Ottawa… our nation’s capital must have quite a music scene.
I like Haneman’s acoustic work on Ms. McGrim, and in other places he leans back and roars. Lots of different feels across these tunes, something for every mood. It’s a record that doesn’t want you to sit down and rest, at least not for very long. On this new disc they’ve tapped into something primal, an emotional place within their brand of blues that touches on places we’ve all been. I even like the way the songs have been sequenced.
Catch the Westbound is one of those albums that will have you saying “This is my favorite song… no, This one is. Wait; no, it’s definitely THIS track”, and I love that. The Lucas Haneman Express is band that is acutely aware of their strengths, and this disc really puts you through the wringer- nicely done.
KEY CUTS: Cold Cold Front, Ms. McGrim, Devil’s In My Grave, Pick It Up
INTO THE SOUL Josh Hyde (JHR Records) ****+
It’s the 2nd time out for this Louisiana native. Into The Soul is the kind of record you’d expect from a title like that- joyous at times, introspective too, across a variety of sounds and grooves that hang nicely together. This is like a deep, late night conversation.
Hyde and producer Joe V. McMahan went old-school, which definitely affected the vibe. “I’d always wanted to do an analog recording, work reel-to-reel” Josh says. “The producer, just by chance knew of a machine that was being sold by Robert Plant’s producer, so we ended up buying this 24 track analog machine.” Hyde notes that “90% of all albums are probably recorded with Pro Tools, and there’s almost too many options. There’s just something to walking in and recording with a band, and committing to that take that you did right there and then. It’s just like this spot in time, cemented on the analog tape. I just think it sounds better too.”
Into the Soul is like listening to AM radio in the 70’s as Hyde touches on a wide variety of influences that somehow fit together as a unique musical vision with a blues thread. There’s tasty, rootsy guitar work throughout, what Hyde calls “human and imperfect”, giving these songs an organic spirit that feels good. I could listen to this all day- and I think I will.
KEY CUTS: Call My Name, Rocking Chair, Can’t Let Go
THE MEDICINE SHOW Melissa Etheridge (I Tunes purchase) **** ½
This makes 15 albums for Etheridge and it’s her best record in some time. The Medicine Show is raw and honest as her music almost always is. She’s working with guitarist/ producer John Shanks again, and this thing has muscle.
The Medicine Show has a more raw sound than we’re used to from Melissa. The opening track kicks the doors down with distorted guitars and rock & roll ‘tude, then she works her way down to a ballad like I Know You in the middle of the disc. Her lyrics are earnest and confessional almost to a fault but for those of us that have trouble expressing ourselves, that’s been on of her charms since the beginning. The songs aren’t as lusty as her early stuff but hey, her debut was what… 31 years ago?
The Medicine Show, sensitive moments aside, is a rock & roll record that will take you back to 1995’s Yes I Am, her commercial breakthrough. Songs like Here Comes The Pain feel more familiar with her acoustic guitar and dramatic lyrics, but no matter what she’s singing there’s no denying her passion. That’s why we still buy her records.
Is The Medicine Show her best album? No, for me that would be 2001’s Skin– but it’s probably a top fiver. Shanks’ production gives Etheridge a fresh platform from which to express herself yet it’s billed as a return to form- perhaps back to the rockin’ Fearless Love from 2010, their last collaboration. I’m not overly emotional guy, and that is probably what attracts me to Melissa; that she can and does express that. You know where she stands.
KEY CUTS: The Medicine Show, Here Comes The Pain, Faded By Design
AMERIGEDDON Christopher Titus (Comedy Network) *****
Next to mid-career Carlin, this is my favorite angry white guy. The audio version of Titus’s latest comedy special is finally here and, as expected, he’s damn funny.
I have friends that I like to joke with about wildly inappropriate things that we would never say in front of anyone else. Christopher Titus, as long as I’ve been listening, has no such filter. Amerigeddon, recorded last year, addresses the profoundly weird times playing out in the U.S. As the poster on his website says, he’s “uniting America one drunk audience at a time.” Fodder for his comedy include the comet already on its way to kill us all, running for president (“because the current president will drop a deuce by Easter” he theorized last year) and making fun of Nazis which is sadly topical again.
Titus’s comedy is honest and pretty well researched, but ‘funny’ is even more subjective than music- you get it or you don’t. If you like the social relevance of Carlin’s mid to late career stuff, you’ll like this. If dick and fart jokes are more your speed and political material about the absurdity of our times doesn’t tickle you, this probably isn’t for you. Me? I laughed my ass off for two hours and I gotta admit, that felt pretty good.
KEY CUTS: The Wall, Road Warrior, Alt Right Part I & II, The Confidently Stupid
ROCKHOUSE PARTY Big Joe & The Dynaflows (Severn) ****+
Bandleader/ drummer/ singer Joe Maher is primed and ready to show us a good time. On Rockhouse Party, his 9th album, he and The Dynaflows cover all the blues bases, from the fun jump stuff to the lowdown and dirty- it’s all here.
Big Joe, from Washington, DC , has worked with some of the greats including Delbert McClinton, Anson Funderburgh, Otis Rush, Jimmy Witherspoon and more… so I think it’s safe to judge him by the company he’s kept. Dance oriented jump blues is his band’s specialty, and there are a couple of unusually talented youngsters involved in Rockhouse. Yates McKendree, son of Kevin McKendree (keyboardist, owner of the studio where this was done), is a 16 year old guitar phenom with old school chops. Singer/ guitarist Erin Coburn is also 16, but she sings and plays with the kind of mileage of someone who’s been around the block a few more times. They both play on all 13 tracks.
Recorded at Rockhouse Studios in Franklin Tennessee about 20 miles south of Nashville, Rockhouse Party was produced by Maher and Kevin McKendree to perfection with a spacious mix, and listening to this is like riding a wave sonically and emotionally. As a drummer Big Joe has that blues shuffle beat down cold, and he has a voice born to sing the blues. Despite Joe having been absent from the recording scene thanks to an almost career ending back injury, the band on this disc sounds like they’ve been together forever. Take this one at face value; this really is a Rockhouse Party!
KEY CUTS: World Gone Wrong, 8 Men 4 Women, Two Years Of Torture