Music Reviews by the Rock Doctor: Dec 2019

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THANKS FOR THE DANCE Leonard Cohen (Columbia) *****
Most posthumous releases are collections of B-sides and left over tracks, a ‘sweeping of the vaults’ as it were- but not this. Thanks For The Dance takes vocals that Leonard recorded during sessions for his final disc You Want It Darker out of which his son Adam, at Leonard’s behest, constructed new songs, with help from some talented friends. The resulting record is dark, stark and mesmerizing in its beauty.

Thanks For The Dance follows the thread of Cohen’s last couple of albums lyrically and sonically, when he knew his time was growing short. The collaborators include Javier Mas, the great Spanish laud player who accompanied Leonard on stage during his final 8 years. Damien Rice and Leslie Feist sang, Richard Reed Parry of Arcade Fire played some bass, Bryce Dessner of The National played guitar, and composer Dustin O’Halloran played piano. Producer Daniel Lanois enriched the arrangements. Jennifer Warnes, a one-time backup singer for Cohen (check out her marvelous Famous Blue Raincoat collection of Cohen songs from the 80’s) sang some back-ups, plus Beck contributed some guitar and Jew’s harp. As with You Want It Darker, this was engineered and mixed by Michael Chaves.

“In composing and arranging the music for his words, we chose his most characteristic musical signatures, in this way keeping him with us” Adam says. “What moves me most about the album is the startled response of those who have heard it; ‘Leonard lives!’ they say, one after the other.” I heartily echo that sentiment about this elegant suite of songs. Had Leonard not passed away, this feels like the album that would have followed his 2016 release. Far from being a vulgar record company cash grab to capitalize on Cohen’s grieving fans, Thanks For The Dance is an unexpected blessing, a gift of beauty and strength. Leonard’s voice has note been stilled- the dance goes on.

KEY CUTS: Puppets, Happens To The Heart, Thanks For The Dance

HEY, I’M JUST LIKE YOU Tegan & Sara (Warner Music) ***
An unusual and likeable thing here, Tegan & Sara’s new album. Following the release of their memoir High School the same week, Hey I’m Just Like You is new recordings of the first songs they wrote between the ages of 15 and 17. There’s something about the raw, emotional teenage honesty in these songs that makes them work and connect.

This is a look back at the formative years of these twin sister pop stars and the trauma of high school. Traumatic for everyone, really; if you made it out unscarred you weren’t paying attention. There’s a Lilith Fair vibe to some of the tunes, while others are electronic dance floor fillers, and the extreme emotions of that time of life are close to the surface. Paste notes that “the time-capsule quality of the material allows for multiple meanings. When sung by a thirty-something, the deceptively ebullient We Don’t Have Fun When We’re Together Anymore could be a lament for a passionless marriage. In fact it’s a teenager venting about alienation within one’s own friend group.”

As I listen to Hey I’m Just Like You I find myself wondering how Tegan & Sara felt about re-visiting these songs all these years later and how the meanings might have changed for them. I don’t have any notes on the recording or production of this album but I think it’s safe to call it a modern pop production with all that entails, with some folky elements mixed in to make for a surprisingly entertaining listen. I still don’t like programmed drums but I can cut them some slack and forgive the occasional profanity too.

I might be in my sixties now but I still have a pretty clear memory of what being a teenager felt like, and Hey I’m Just Like You speaks to that part in us all. As pop records go, this one is a keeper.

KEY CUTS: We Don’t Have Fun When We’re Together Anymore, Hold My Breath Until I Die, Keep Them Close ‘Cause They Will Fuck You Too

SONGS FOR GROOVY CHILDREN: THE FILLMORE EAST CONCERTS Jimi Hendrix & The Band Of Gypsies (Experience Hendrix/ Sony Legacy) ****
Jimi Hendrix has been dead for 49 years, but he still puts out music. This box set features all four of Hendrix’s Band Of Gypsies’ debut concerts, remixed to spectacular effect by the legendary Eddie Kramer. I’ve heard some of these performances before and honestly, they never sounded this good.

Any Hendrix fan can tell you that these shows represent a creative turning point for Jimi, a glimpse of things to come. Hendrix had disbanded The Experience and was searching for something else, pushing the boundaries of funk, rock and blues. With him on stage are drummer/ singer Buddy Miles and bassist Billy Cox, whom Jimi had been friends and played with in the army. Though this band, too, would be history by the end of January 1970, this historical significance of these gigs cannot be overestimated.

The Band Of Gypsies album that most of us are familiar with uses tracks from the 2 shows recorded New Year’s Day 1970. What Songs For Groovy Children does is gather every song from all 4 performances including the 2 shows from New Year’s Eve too, some of them heard here for the first time. This 5 cd box (an 8 LP vinyl version is due Dec.13th) boasts over 2 dozen tracks that have either never before been released commercially, or have been newly pressed and remixed here.

There are 43 tracks in all on Groovy Children, and as this is 4 gigs recorded over 2 nights there are different versions of some songs here, but comparing separate performances is part of the fun of listening to a box like this. As much as I dig The Experience, the psychedelic nature of their music wears me out. With Band Of Gypsies I enjoy hearing Jimi express himself within a more traditional rock format. Plus, Buddy Miles is a solid vocalist and I’m sure Hendrix liked not having to spend the entire show at the mic.

Even if you have previous versions of these shows on record or cd, Songs For Groovy Children is worth having for Eddie Kramer’s frankly stunning remix of these recordings. From Experience staples like Fire and Purple Haze to then new songs like Ezy Rider, it sounds like being at the gigs, though I was only 11 when they took place! From the crushing rock of Wild Thing or Purple Haze to the soulful blues of Bleeding Heart, Jimi’s range and inventiveness as a guitarist was truly remarkable. This is a wonderful package.

KEY CUTS: Bleeding Heart, Machine Gun, Power Of Soul, Lover Man, Voodoo Child (Slight Return)

TAKIN’ OUR TIME Will Jacobs & Marcos Coll (Gaztelupeko Hotsak) ***+
Back in the 60’s, the blues had to travel to Europe and get sent back across the Atlantic to get the attention of North American audiences. I guess things haven’t changed that much- American bluesman Will Jacobs is now based in Berlin and has just come out with an authentic slice of blues to rival anything from Chicago.

Jacobs, just 26, sounds like an old black guy sitting in a folding chair in some seedy club, bent over a cheap guitar as he cranks out blues that hits you right in the gut, as Marcos Coll throws down righteous harmonica. The bio I received with the album is charmingly awkward in its translation from German into English, but one phrase really sticks out; when it refers to Coll as a “fireproof musician”, which struck me as being a fine thing to be. As I listen to the album, these tracks support that observation.

Will Jacobs is a multi-instrumentalist that has been developing his career since the age of 12, and that mileage shows in a really good way. These blues sound lived in, like part of the long running Delta tradition. The ecstatic slide work on Stranded over a greasy blues groove is just what the doctor ordered, and Will’s soulful vocals, not unlike early Robert Cray, are almost clean in comparison. Tales of romance and infidelity are well represented here as you would expect with the blues- perhaps not as inventive as the musicianship, but appropo nonetheless.

Takin’ Our Time was recorded in Berlin with Marcos Coll on harmonica and Will Jacobs on everything else, recorded and mixed by Stephano Ronchi. This disc has great atmosphere and ambience, as if it were recorded in the late 60’s instead of earlier this year. Old style blues with just a bit of funk- not a bad way to go.

KEY CUTS: Going To Berlin, Stranded, Bluescazorla Boogie

THE SENTENCE Brad Heller (independent) **** ¾
Socially conscious folk/ alt-rock… if I had to label Brad Heller’s fifth album, that’s the one I’d slap on it. The Sentence is an engaging collection of stories that will remind you of your Jayhawks and Blue Rodeo records with a full-bodied yet stripped down sound, and in the various ways Brad looks at life.

All things considered, The Sentence is a pretty deep record. Whether he’s flirting with Springsteen’s style (Bound For Nothing), paying homage to his late father (Time’s The Enemy, Chasing Wolves) or gliding into the distant afterlife on the final track (The Garden Tree), Heller tells engaging stories that really draw you in. Like Springsteen, Dylan or Steve Earl, there are elements of rock, folk and country in bed together here. Southeast Performer hits the nail on the head when talking about Brad Heller and his band, The Fustics; “They make honest to goodness rock and roll… at times sounding like The Jayhawks or even bigger bands like The Wallflowers… dramatic in the same way Van Morrison or Led Zeppelin can be in their quietest moments.”

You can’t pin down The Sentence to any one particular thing or vibe… when you think you’ve got it nailed, Brad and his band turn around and mine a different vein. The common thread, whether they’re rockin’ out or going to the country, is the telling of deep, personal stories that get you thinking about similar things and relationships in your own life. It’s weird, but after my first trip through The Sentence, I felt cleansed.

By and large I’m good with the production sound of this album, but there’s something about the sound of the snare drum that bugs me. It’s not completely awful, but it is somehow… wrong. Maybe it should’ve been mic’d differently, or maybe I’m just a picky old man that’s full of crap; either way of looking at it is probably valid. The Sentence is a collection of quite well written songs that cover a wide range of personal and social issues, giving us lots to think about, making it really excellent company.

KEY CUTS: Bound For Nothing, Chasing Wolves, The Garden Tree

BYWATER CALL Bywater Call (Gypsy Soul Records) ****
Southern bluesy soul out of Toronto is what you’re in for with Bywater Call’s self titled debut album here. Powerful and moving, this set of songs combines the elements of jam band, traditional blues, soul and rock & roll for a tasty listening experience.

So many cool things going on between the lines here, where to begin? With influences ranging from The Band to Duane Allman to Otis Redding, Aretha Franklin and Elmore James, this music just wraps itself around your soul in a warm embrace. The expert musicianship here is based in jazz, and singer Meghan Parnell has a passionate, unforgettable vocal style that gives these tracks real steam. Recorded in Toronto and produced by Darcy Yates and Renan Yildizdogan, Bywater Call has a natural, unforced sound that can be hard to come by these days.

If somebody threw this on without telling me it was a new release, I’d guess early-ish 70’s- reminds me of The Band crossed with Blood, Sweat & Tears. The punchy horns (Stephen Dyte, trumpet, Julian Nalli, tenor and baritone sax) give the songs an upbeat spirit as they take us to church, thanks to Alan Zemaitis’s keyboard work, while guitarist Dave Barnes and the rhythm section of Bruce McCarthy (drums) and Mike Meusel (bass) don’t overplay, making Bywater Call all about groove and feel.

I really like a record that takes you on an expedition… close your eyes, you start to drift, and you’re gone. That’s just what Bywater Call does on their amazing debut, takes you by the hand and says “let’s go explore, shall we?” This makes me feel good and it fills my spirit- it’s like the first step on what will surely be an exciting journey.

KEY CUTS: Swing Low, Arizona, Nightmare

HOLLA & MOAN The McNamarr Project (Bahool Records) *** ½
While I usually end up listening to and writing about blues, folk and Americana, this big blast of soul landed on my desk with a loud “THUMP” a while ago. Bringing the sound and feel of Stax and Chess Records back to life are singer Andrea Marr and guitarist John McNamara, the principle players on Holla & Moan. This all original set of soul, blues, gospel and funk is perfectly produced, and a cool listen.

John McNamara’s guitar work here is subtle, expressive and all kinds of awesome, but Andrea Marr’s voice is the star. She’s a force of nature to be sure, like Tina Turner meets Aretha, an earthquake that oozes pure soul from every syllable. And John is no slouch at the mic either, a capable vocal sparring partner for his insanely talented band mate. John and Andrea are already well loved in Australia, where they hail from, and with music this powerful it’s only a matter of time before the rest of the planet catches on.

Joe Kleinman of Elmore Magazine states that “McNamara’s music is a powerful reminder that Memphis soul s still a living, breathing musical genre.” Peter Lauro of Ambient Life says “when it comes to youthfulness, I envy those that have it. As for talent, I marvel at those who possess it. Intelligence is also a quality I commend and I truly admire the beautiful. However, possessorship of all of these should be downright illegal. Someone arrest Andrea Marr.” Holla & Moan is a work of outstanding musicality and soul, and as a singer Marr will bowl you over again and again.

Holla & Moan was recorded in Memphis Tennessee and Victoria Australia and produced by the artists themselves, who clearly knew what they were looking for. A half dozen other musicians were involved too, providing sonic muscle when required and delicate grooviness when the songs required it. This is a tasty soul stew.

KEY CUTS: No More Chains, Holla & Moan, Throw Down A Little Love

THE BREADCRUMBS EP Alice Cooper (Edel/ Ear Music) ***
A new EP from the Coop, released in September as a ‘taster’ of the album we can expect next year. An homage to some of the garage rock heroes from his hometown of Detroit, this is Alice as you may have never heard him before, and it’s tres entertaining.

Produced by Bob Ezrin, Breadcrumbs is 6 songs from people like Suzi Quatro, The MC5, Bob Seger and Mitch Ryder & The Detroit Wheels. The disc also features a new Cooper tune in Go Man Go and a re-working of Detroit City, originally heard on his 2003 album The Eyes Of Alice Cooper. Contributing musicians here include The MC5’s Wayne Kramer, ex-Grand Funk guitarist Mark Farner and jazz singer Paul Randolph.

Alice has wandered off the beaten path before, but I like where he’s heading here. “There’s a certain Detroit sound we (were) looking for” he said back in March, “it’s indefinable. There’s a certain amount of R&B in it. There’s a certain amount of Motown in it. But then you add the guitars and you add the attitude and it turns into Detroit rock.” It never ceases to amaze me that, now in his early 70’s, Alice continues to find new and interesting creative areas to explore, and always coming back with something intriguing.

Breadcrumbs is well produced and energetic, it rocks with lots of spit and soul, and if this the direction his next album goes in as he says, I’m in. I’ve read on Facebook that he’s been writing with members of the original Alice Cooper group and that they’re involved in the new album as well, and that’s exciting. This is a pile of fun.

KEY CUTS: Go Man go, Your Mama Won’t Like Me

IT’S A MIGHTY HARD ROAD Popa Chubby (PCP Productions) *****
A new album by one of my favourite blues performers is cause for much celebration, particularly heading into the holiday season. Although the one sheet I received says this will be on CD Baby, iTunes, Amazon and all platforms March 1st, 2020, I got the cd in the mail today and it’s currently blasting from my stereo. It’s A Mighty Hard Road is my favourite Popa Chubby album since 2008’s Deliveries After Dark.

Popa’s real name is Ted Horowitz and he’s from Brooklyn. Though hard rock informs much of his music, it runs on blues power. He’s not a tiny dude either. Like he says in his bio on the inner sleeve “I’m half human half beast, 300 pounds of muscle and man, New York born native son, grew up hard, too big to run.” And you can feel all of that in his playing- whether he’s hammering out chords, or the wicked slide work on It Ain’t Nothin’. He survived a troubled youth of violence and drugs, saved by the guitar. “I was no longer fat Teddy from the block. I was a player, a singer, a writer, and I found out people liked me for that. I was risen from the ashes, made stronger from the fire.”

If you need a description or label, call this one hard rockin’ blues with soul. All the songs are credited to Popa (Ted Horowitz) except the 2 covers that finish up the album; I’d Rather be Blind by Leon Russell, Don Nix and Donald Dunn, and Prince’s Kiss. He’s been making records for over 30 years, I’ve been a fan since I first heard How’d A White Boy get The Blues in Y2K, but I daresay he’s getting better each time out. Some of the solos show real firepower, but when it’s time to pull it down and ride the groove as he does on a song like The Best Is Yet To Come, his playing is tasty and restrained, exhilarating in an entirely different way.

It’s A Mighty Hard Road is a beast of a blues record, and I can’t wait for you to hear it. Tracks will be popping up (pardon the pun) on my UDJ show regularly- by the time you read this I’ll have already played at least two.

KEY CUTS: The Flavor Is In The Fat, The Beast From The East, The Best Is Yet To Come, Lost Again

SMALL BLUES AND GROOVES 11 Guys Quartet (VizzTone) *****
It’s not often you hear an instrumental blues record as good as this. Small Blues And Grooves is all about some fat, juicy blues grooves. It’s been sitting unreleased since ‘08, but now it’s in my hot little hands and I can’t wait for you to hear it.

The Quartet is Paul Lenart on guitar, Bill “Coach” Mather on bass, Chuck Purro on drums and Richard Rosenblatt on harmonica. They got together in the early 80’s as The 11th Hour Band, played Boston area clubs and had some wild times. Releasing Hot Time In The City Tonight in 1985 on the fledgling Cool Records label, they played together off and on over the next few decades until other pursuits (musical and otherwise) got in the way. Over the years, their musical chemistry and friendship has stayed intact.

Flash forward to 2008 and The 11 Guys Quartet decide to hit the studio to lay down some original instrumentals, and that’s what we have here. These cuts are straight ahead live takes, mood pieces and variations- no screaming solos, with Rosenblatt’s expressive harp work being the ‘vocal’ element. I can’t tell you why this disc sat unissued for over a decade but the band eventually decided it was time to put this thing out into the world, setting January 10th, 2020 as the release date. But I have the disc now, it’s playing on my stereo, and I’m digging it in a very large way.

Small Blues And Grooves is 14 tracks, each named to catch the essence and feel of the song. The first single (and opening cut) Road Trippin’, finds the Guys flexing their chops over a Freddie King-style groove, Rhumba Boogaloo has a tropical swing, and Down And Dirty sounds exactly like you think it would. No matter what kind of mood you find yourself in, this disc has you covered. I love the fluid musicianship and how ‘in the pocket’ 11 Guys Quartet is. Masterful, understated and just plain cool, this belongs in every blues fan’s collection, and I mean ALL of ‘em.

KEY CUTS: Sleepless, Road Trippin’, Midnight Streetcar

WRONG KIND OF LOVE Rae Gordon Band (independent) *****+
Strap down the breakables because things are about to get wild. Wrong Kind Of Love, the Rae Gordon Band’s 4th album, is the perfect blues storm.

Wrong Kind Of Love runs the gamut stylistically from lowdown barroom blues to danceable funk, from-the-heart soul tugging balladry and slide-drenched rockers. This is a 7 piece band with a tight horn section led by a powerhouse vocalist that I would put in the same league as Angel Forrest, she’s that good. There’s a feeling on these tracks of everyone being excited by what they’re playing and inspiring each other to a higher level of musicianship, which makes every single one of these songs exciting to listen to.

In 2017 Rae Gordon placed 3rd at the International Blues Challenge, and finals judge Walter Trout said afterwards “I gave her a score of 10, the best score you can give. She made an incredible impression” and when you listen to Wrong Kind of Love you’ll feel the same way too. Their last album, Better Than I Was, has received airplay in the States, Canada, Australia and the UK, and The Rae Gordon Band has appeared at numerous festivals as well, so people are definitely listening to these powerful blues.

Wrong Kind of Love was recorded in Portland, Oregon, engineered and mixed by Jimi Bott, and produced by Kivett Bednar; no idea who they are but they pulled one hell of a great album from the Rae Gordon Band. The talent is in the writing and playing, but Jimi and Kivett captured the vibe and the feel perfectly- this disc couldn’t sound better if they tried. The songs on Wrong Kind Of Love rock, roll and grind with an elemental passion and lust that cannot be ignored. I am smitten with this disc, and Rae Gordon has just become one of my very favorite singers in any genre. DAMN this is good!

KEY CUTS: Comin’ Back For More, Wrong Kind Of Love, Get Right With The World

SLIDE RULES! Jay Gordon’s Blues Venom (Shuttle Music/ City Hall Records) *****++
When I talk about blues being dirty, nasty and down in the gutter, this record is the kind of blues I have in mind. Slide Rules combines the power and aggression of Gary Moore and Johnny Winter for a hellacious, blown out blues experience.

Slide Rules grabs you by the balls and throws you against the wall from the very first notes as it rocks, rolls, slips and slides all over hell’s half acre. This is a dangerous trio capable of leveling entire city blocks; Jay Gordon on guitar and vocals, Sharon Butcher on bass and vocals, and Tom Parham on drums. Sharon and Tom lay down a solid foundation over which Jay just cuts loose and lets ‘er rip. I like what Jim Fowler of The LA Times says about his manic guitar playing; “His fingers blaze across the strings, spewing out notes in rapid succession like an AK-47. His playing is as much a feat of athleticism as his musicality.” I used to think that Stevie Ray leaned into it the hardest when he played, until I heard Jay Gordon.

If I’m reading their website correctly, Slide Rules is the 16th album for Jay Gordon’s Blues Venom. It’s a rock & roll record as much as it is a blues record, and it will sit in my music collection like a biker looking to cause trouble at any given moment. The songs are quite simple but the attitude with which they’re played gives them considerable heft. The slower numbers have a kind of sexy, grinding vibe and when they pick up steam to rock out, there’s nowhere to run and nowhere to hide. This disc will scare the shit out of you, but in such a way that will have you begging for more.

Slide Rules is the meanest, nastiest slab of slide blues to come out in maybe ever, and I can’t get enough. This is wicked good fun!

KEY CUTS: Dripping Blues, Dockery’s Plantation, Pure Grain Alcohol

BLUES FROM ANOTHER PLANET Jim Zeller (Propande/ Miss Bean Musique) *** ¾
This is the 6th album for the Quebec-based harp player with a long history. Blues From Another Planet is a real trip, full of great grooves and killer harp playing that takes you right to the edge. It’s a pretty wild ride- hop on board if you know what’s good for you.

Nominated as “harmonica player of the year” for the 2020 Maple Blues Awards, Zeller has worked in the past with people like Michel Pagliaro and Mahogany Rush. Blues From Another Planet feels like a traditional blues record and yet something fresh at the same time. As Jim notes on the inside of the CD cover, “the creative process is a mysterious manifestation of artistic innovation. These songs came from the spirit world. Blues From Another Planet is a result of uncompromising freedom of expression.”

Zeller plays his harp with attitude, leaning into each note and bend hard as if his life depends on it, you can feel that passion and commitment to his art. He’s a solid singer too, and the subject of some of his songs are definitely outside the standard blues framework. Blues From Another Planet tells an interplanetary story with lines like “we came here ten million years ago as our planet turned to dust/ as we were burning in the flames we were searching the universe for water”. Then there’s Psychobilly Baby which is somewhat self-explanatory. The album opener, a funk exercise called Black & White, takes a look at racial issues. All in all, that’s pretty ambitious for a blues album.

Though it’s correct to call this a blues record, Blues From Another Planet has more going for it than just that. From start to finish, this collection of songs takes you on a real journey, lyrically and stylistically. Even the instrumental track, The Man With A Harmonica, isn’t quite what you’d expect; the music is credited to soundtrack maestro Ennio Morricone, “as interpreted by the Jim Zeller band”. Really cool stuff.

KEY CUTS: Psychobilly Baby, C’est Long, Black and White, Facebook Rockstar

PEACE IN PIECES Betty Fox Band (independent) *****
In the run-up to the end of 2019 it seems like I’ve been getting more than the usual amount of soul music to review. When it’s as good as Peace In Pieces, the 3rd album for The Betty Fox Band, I don’t mind. This is hot, sultry and soulful goodness influenced by Mavis Staples, BB King, Aretha, The Stones, Donny Hathaway, Al Green and Curtis Mayfield. It doesn’t get much better than this.

Not sure how else to put this, but Betty Fox is a white chick with a big, black voice. Peace In Pieces was recorded at the legendary FAME studio in Muscle Shoals Alabama and the magic of that place, evident in so many legendary recordings, is in full force here. “The music that has come from this place has been a constant source of inspiration to me in my growth as a musician” Betty says. “FAME provided a moving, sonic landscape for us, and we felt honored to have the opportunity to record artistically where so much musical history has been made.” You’ll feel it, too, when you listen to the album.

American Blues Scene Magazine compares Fox’s singing to a cross between Beth Hart and Etta James, and there’s no argument from me. The band swings with elastic and enthusiastic precision, with Spooner Oldham’s keyboards providing just the right southern spice for these bewitching songs. It doesn’t hurt to have the highly acclaimed FAME horn section pitching in either. As a co-writer Fox’s lyrical observations are, on occasion, startlingly personal. Sweet Goodnight, for example, is about her dad. “My father died young from Lou Gherig’s disease” she says. “He passed away quickly after his diagnosis. (The song) was written with the help of my stepmother at their home in the mountains of North Carolina. Sometimes music is the only way we have of connecting with the deepest feelings of mourning and loss… it was healing for us both.”

The best music, aside from sounding great, makes you think and feel on a deeper level and that’s just what Peace In Peaces does. This is magnificent.

KEY CUTS: Sweet Goodnight, Let go Or Be Dragged, Til The Storm Passes By

I’LL DRINK TO THAT Griff Hamlin & The Single Barrel Blues Band (independent) ******
It’s the first album for these vets of the southern California blues scene, and it’s a powerful thing. Combining the uptown suaveness of BB King’s band with the punchy horn attack of Vancouver’s Powder Blues, this is a fresh sound that’s bound to take the blues world by storm and show them a good time.

When you combine the blues with a touch of big band swing it can sound forced, but not with Griff Hamlin & The Single Barrel Blues Band. I’ll Drink To That is a lively disc with tight arrangements and stunning musicianship. The band really dates back to ’92 when Hamlin and bassist Mark Smith played the southern California club circuit in a quartet, eventually releasing a disc of original music in 2001. When Griff married his wife Laura, who plays baritone sax, moving to a larger band was a natural progression.

I’ll Drink To That is mostly new original tunes, with a few from that ’01 release re-imagined. The music and lyrics were written by Griff, horn arrangements by Tim Akers, and the album was recorded in LA. Hamlin is a versatile singer, at home with the blues. But you get the feeling he could sing rock or pop, anything he wants. He’s an exciting guitarist too, playing lean and mean when the situation calls for it, but he can pull it back too. The Single Barrel Blues Band is 8 pieces- a group with guitar, drums, bass and keys, plus a 4 piece horn section. Big band, big sound, but not an ounce of flab on any of these 10 cuts- they’re superbly arranged and played and not one extra note.

I’ll Drink To That is very well produced, clean but not fussy and the playing by all, especially Hamlin’s guitar, is quite inspiring. I usually prefer my blues dirty and scruffy as opposed to being this sophisticated, but I’m digging this as much as I did Jay Gordon’s new album. As blues records go, this is quite uplifting.

KEY CUTS: Down And Out,, Bourbon And A Pistol, Where Would I Begin

ELDORADO Guy Belanger (Bros Records) ****
This is the 6th solo album for Quebec’s most sought after harmonica player. A mix of original blues tunes and evocative instrumentals, Eldorado is the perfect way to wind down after a hard week in the rat race, to just melt into your chair and drift.

Belanger and his band play so well, so intuitively together, they’re almost like a single organism sharing the same thoughts and instincts- it’s a beautiful thing to hear. Guy’s career has spanned over 4 decades and he’s worked with some of the biggest names in music and entertainment, including Celine Dion, Cirque du Soleil and Bob Walsh. He’s also a two-time Maple Blues Award winner and, since ’03, has won 14 Lys Blues awards.

In describing the album Belanger says “Eldorado” means (for me) ‘The Quest’. I love the road I ride, and the pitfalls only give me the courage to move forward.” On this album his band has an almost delicate touch, like jazz musicians playing with a blues touch. As a harp player, Guy exercises phenomenal restraint- instead of blowing hard and fast as so many do, his solos can be atmospheric, blending in with the band’s performance and yet standing out at the same time.

Aside from the original material Eldorado also contains a few surprising covers, including a delta blues version of Prince’s Sign O’ The Times featuring Mathis Haug. In the liner notes for this song Belanger says “the pleasure of the travelling musician is to encounter other artists. To be able to reconnect with my friend Mathis Haug (whom I met in France during a festival) and to revamp his personal version of this song by Prince is a really beautiful gift!” and, I might add, it’s haunting too. The disc also contains a joyous rendition of Van Morrison’s Bright Side Of The Road.

Bottom line, Eldorado is a truly beautiful album- like a massage for the soul.

KEY CUTS: Sign O’ The Times, Carving The Wind, Hummin’

CLICK CLICK SPARK Troy Gonyea (Lotus Eater Records) *** ½
He’s played along side some of the greats, and now he’s here with a spirited live album. Click Click Spark, apparently recorded in a small club, is loaded with spirit, feeling and some fierce playing from Gonyea and his band.

Troy picked up the guitar at the age of 13 and, in his 25 year career, has played with some of the blues’ best. He’s recorded with Kim Wilson, played with The Fabulous Thunderbirds for 4 years, toured with Booker T. Jones and performed and toured with The Muddy Waters Blues band. His singing voice carries a lifetime of experience, an aching suited to the blues, and his guitar playing is fluid and natural. Guitarist Ronnie Earl has commented that, when he has listened to Troy play slow blues, “I was able to hear the whole history of the blues.” If you can impress Earl, you’ve got it going on.

CCS features 3 Gonyea originals alongside 6 blues standards like Willie Dixon’s Bring It On Home (Zeppelin played it on their 2nd album) and the traditional Tell Heaven. The band is superbly uncomplicated; Troy on vocals and guitar, Brooks Milgate on keys, Marty Ballou on bass, and Marty Richards on drums. Each of these 4 guys understands implicitly what these songs need and then gives them just that; no more, and no less.

So if Troy Gonyea is not yet a planetary big deal, why a live album? “The music I love and play is improvisational” Gonyea says. “You get that magic element and a heightened awareness when you’re playing live. Every time I hit the stage, no matter whether it’s a small club or a huge festival, I try to perform the same way with the same mentality. I shoot for being an exciting and inventive live act. That off-the-cuff style is what I enjoy.” You can get 4 talented guys in a studio and get good results, but playing live is like adding another member to the band and reaching even higher heights.

Click Click Spark is raw, live, and on the beam.

KEY CUTS: That’s Why I’m Crying, Bring It On Home, Jumping At Shadows

ROLL WITH THE PUNCHES Martin Harley (Del Mundo Records) *** ½
It strikes me as mildly ironic that a UK roots artist would be so adept at ‘Americana’. British guitarist and songwriter Martin Harley is back with more great stories for Roll With the Punches. Unlike his last two records, recorded in Nashville, this one was done in a remote chapel deep in the wilds of Pembrookshire. It’s an intimate, gritty analog disc.

When I spin this one I hear folk, country and blues, often at the same time. Roll With The Punches explores hopes and fears for the fast changing times we live in, offering up comfort and consolation in knowing that we’re not alone in our struggles. The disc was produced by Harley and his drummer, Harry Harding (Jonny Henderson on keys and Jodie Marie on backing vocals round out the group), and they’ve captured something- a sound, an energy- that you probably couldn’t find in a high tech studio. I’ve used the term before, but it’s perfectly imperfect- the captured sounds aren’t exactly pristine, nor should they be. The chapel and its location where this was recorded are as important as the band to the finished result.

Roll With The Punches ends on an uplifting gospel note with The Time Is Now, suggesting that the time to stand up and be counted is now, but the 9 songs before it are quite a journey. Country blues riffs, driving rhythms and electric bottleneck slide all have their say here, and the result is a blend of stories that, if you haven’t lived them yourself you probably know someone who has. Harley has been keeping himself busy all over the planet at festivals in Canada and the UK plus all over Europe and the US.

Roll With The Punches is a well lived in batch of stories that I definitely recommend.

KEY CUTS: Putting Down Roots, If Tears Were Pennies, Brother, The Time Is Now

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