Music Reviews by The Rock Doctor: July-8th, 2019

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LET FREEDOM RING: SONGS FOR A NEW GENERATION Glenna Bell (independent) *****
The new album from this Texas treasure is beautifully vulnerable. Sparse instrumentation and Glenna’s voice give Let Freedom Ring instant impact.

That cover photo is Glenna as a baby being held by her mother. “I had young people in mind when I wrote this album” she says, “but I think these songs cross generations and genders in their message that togetherness, perseverance and love will set us free.” Freedom was produced by Ronnie King (Mariah Carey, Tyrese, Tupac, Snoop Dogg), a seemingly unlikely collaborator, but he’s no stranger to roots music. King grew up in a musical household filled with the tunes of his family’s string band, and judging by what I’m hearing, these two are a match made in heaven.

The quaver in Bell’s voice leads you to drop your guard and invites you into each song, her vocals like Loretta Lynn with a side of Janis Joplin. Ronnie King is quite a pianist and Glenna had initially hoped to tap into that more for the new record. “Now I see that both of us were longing for a familiar sound that we grew up with, made by loved ones long gone” she says. “It’s like I somehow wrote these songs for your family and mine- the hard times people of the past, the present, and the future.”

Let Freedom Ring is haunting and beautiful overall, but the up-tempo blues Big Thicket speaks to the varied and inspirational music of her home state. “Ronnie whipped up this amazing high energy blues and said to me ‘sing’” Glenna recalls, “so I sang with all my might whatever came into my head that day.” Had to hit repeat on that quite a few times.

Let Freedom Ring: Songs For A New Generation haunts you in the best possible way.

KEY CUTS: So In Love With You, Big Thicket, Let Freedom Ring

QUEEN OF MY CASTLE Diana Rein (Gulf Coast Records) ****
There are few things as attractive as a woman who can really play guitar and the new album from this Chicagoan is a sassy declaration. Queen Of The Castle bristles with muscular Texas-style guitar fireworks to get you on your feet.

Diana emigrated to the U.S. from Romania with her parents in ’81, landing in Chicago. She took her family’s strong Romanian work ethic to performing arts school where her talents flourished. Her love of the blues started at 8 when her parents brought her to a blues club, arranging to have her perform some songs with the band- a defining moment.

It becomes apparent quickly on Queen of My Castle that SRV is an idol. She doesn’t play exactly like him but her phrasing is similar, and the album frames that very well. Queen was co-produced by Walter Trout’s drummer Michael Leasure, who says that Diana is “an uber talented singer-songwriter/guitarist, (and) also one of the most diligent and dedicated artists I’ve ever worked with.” There’s a sweetness to her voice that belies the ferocity of her playing, but it’s a perfect match for the supple lead lines on a track like In The Chill Of The Night, sure to become a bedroom classic- what my dad would’ve called “good belly rubbin’ music”.

Queen Of My Castle sports a variety of grooves, rolling on like a wave headed for the beach- sometimes high and foamy, other times just slipping in along the shoreline. No matter where you find yourself emotionally, there’s a song or three that match you step for step and makes you feel like she understands what you’ve been through… and that’s what good blues is all about.

KEY CUTS: Yes I Sing The Blues, In The Chill of The Night, Walking Along

LET’S ROCK The Black Keys (Easy Eye Sound/ Nonesuch Records) *****
The Black Keys’ 9th studio album is a trip. Let’s Rock’s songs have a classic pop sophistication, and they rock too. Like Paste says, “If you want something you can crank up at a backyard barbeque or in the car with the windows down The Black Keys have two words for you, and they’re in the album title.”

This is pseudo-classic rock; Dan Aurbach and Patrick Carney sound like they’re channeling T. Rex, The Raspberries and Gerry Rafferty. Let’s Rock was written, tracked live and produced at Aurbach’s Easy Eye Sound Studio in Nashville. “The record is like an homage to electric guitar” says Carney. “We took a simple approach and trimmed all the fat.” This set relies more on performance and feel than most modern productions, and that sets it apart. I like the way it moves and how the songs feel. The chunky guitars that power Shine A Little Light, the opening cut, say “Hey, you’re really going to enjoy this.”

As the title implies, Let’s Rock is a return to the straightforward rock that made The Black Keys popular in the first place. “When we’re together we are The Black Keys and that’s where that real magic is, and always has been since we were sixteen” Aurbach observes. They’ve won six Grammies and headlined major festivals, so he should know.

Kudos to The Black Keys for keeping it real. No doubt Let’s Rock will be one of the coolest albums of the summer, possibly the whole year.

KEY CUTS: Shine A Little Light, Walk Across The Water, Sit Around And Miss You

ROOTS AND BRANCHES: THE SONGS OF LITTLE WALTER Billy Branch & the Sons Of Blues (Alligator) ***** +
Little Walter was one of the harmonica greats and anyone that plays will acknowledge his mastery and influence. On Roots And Branches Billy Branch pays tribute by blowing hot blues with a rock & roll heart.

Billy is a soulful vocalist and among the greatest harmonica players working today, so Little Walter’s legacy is in great hands. Little Walter Jacobs was one of the principal architects of the Chicago blues sound, and Branch walks confidently in his footsteps. Roots features 15 songs written or made famous by the harp legend, and they literally jump out of the speakers. “We were determined not to make this a ‘typical’ Little Walter tribute recording” Billy says. “We are proud to present an album with elements of soul, funk, and even a little bit of gospel. Our goal was to competently and respectfully produce a Little Walter-themed recording with a different twist, while preserving the integrity of (his) innovative style.” Walter himself would approve.

Branch’s vocals are passionate, his harp playing raw and loaded with attitude, The Sons Of Blues let it all hang out, and the results are powerful. Branch was tutored and mentored by original blues giants like Willie Dixon and he learned directly from guys like Big Walter Horton, James Cotton and Junior Wells. In the blues authenticity is important, and Billy has that by the wagonload.

Roots Ands Branches is about taking great songs and saying “Hey, remember these? Let’s listen again.” Billy and his boys aren’t taking museum pieces down off the shelf to dust them off, they’re giving blistering re-interpretations of some great songs, period. This one is absolutely wicked.

KEY CUTS: My Babe, Mellow Down Easy, Boom Boom Out Go The Lights

TIRED OF TALKIN’ Steve Strongman (independent) ****
More steaming, rockin’ blues from the best thing to come out of Hamilton since the Ti-Cats. Tired of Talkin’, Steve’s 6th release (the 4th Strongman disc to join my collection), is a deep, dynamic, gritty fire-breathing set.

Recorded in Nashville and Hamilton and produced by Dave King (who also played drums), Tired of Talkin’ is exciting. Steve is backed by world-class talent here, including Pat Sansone (Wilco, Mavis Staples) on keys, Audley Freed (Sheryl Crow, The Black Crowes) on guitar and James Haggerty (Steve Cropper, The Blues Brothers) on bass. As a singer Strongman feels a bit like Barney Bentall, and his guitar playing really ignites this disc with great feeling and passion. His solos are like lyrics- like he’s really telling us something- we just need to be open to what’s being said.

Tired Of Talkin’ wanders from the full throttle rock of the title track at the top to some nice dobro on Highwayman, giving us the full spectrum of blues. The album is 11 originals and a version of Al Green’s Let’s Stay Together that will stop you in your tracks. While mainly an expression of the blues, this album also boldly represents funk, soul and rock & roll. I could do with more records like Tired of Talkin’.

KEY CUTS: Highwayman, Tired of Talkin’, Let’s Stay Together

GET HERE QUICK The Texas Horns (Severn) ****+
When it comes to the blues I’m a guitar freak and a harp guy, but the latest from one of the most in-demand horn sections in the business has me stretching those boundaries. They have a bunch of blues heavyweights helping out too and the results are pure gold.

Get Here Quick is punchy and soulful in a 70’s sort of way, and smartly produced. The all-star supporting cast is worth mentioning; singers Curtis Salgado, John Nemeth, Gary Nicholson, Guy Forsyth and Carolyn Wonderland… guitarists Ronnie Earl, Anson Funderburgh, Johnny Moeller, Denny Freeman, Derek O’Brien and Jonn Del Toro Richardson. Drummers Tommy Taylor and John Bryant lay down some exquisitely supple grooves on which everyone else can frolic and play, and the contributions of keyboard players Red Young and Nick Connolly cannot be overstated.

When you get session pros together like Mark Kazanoff, Al Gomez and John Mills a certain expertise and tightness is expected and we get that from The Texas Horns, but it also sounds like they’re having fun. “It took us a year to make Get Here Quick” recalls Kazanoff. “I don’t usually like to do record production projects like that, but we had so many wonderful guest musicians in mind that we knew we’d never be able to get everyone in place for a week or two; so we did the CD bit by bit.” Their patience paid off with a stunning disc that is totally worth the effort it took to pull together.

Mark also notes that producer Stuart Sullivan is the most important part of the project. Get Here Quick was recorded at Stuart’s Wire Recording Studio in Austin, and “(he) made this whole thing WORK. What’s so special about Stuart is his musicality and good sense.” The results speak for themselves- this is GREAT stuff.

KEY CUTS: Guitar Town, Feelin’ No Pain, Soulshine, Love Is Gone

MICHAEL LEE Michael Lee (Ruf) ****
Lee’s self-titled release is his first for Ruf. Apparently his version of the BB King classic The Thrill Is Gone from The Voice has logged six million-plus views on You Tube. Is he the one to drag the genre into the mainstream where it rightfully belongs? Could be.

Michael is from Texas and it shows on his new album. “Being from Dallas and Fort Worth, I’m heavily influenced by Freddie King and Delbert McClinton” he says, and you can feel it. “(My style) is retro Texas rhythm & blues with a helping of rock ‘n’ roll.” His guitar playing has moments of fluidity and reckless abandon that makes it a blast to listen to, and his singing is old soul… a joyous combination.

Michael Lee was recorded at Christ Chapel Church and engineered by Nick Choate, who set Mike and the band up and recorded them live, catching the sparks as they flew, bottling the raw emotion of the tracks. Included is a properly recorded version of The Thrill is Gone for fans to enjoy repeatedly; at least as moving as BB’s original. Michael finds inspiration everywhere; the song Weeds is surprisingly reflective. “When my wife and I moved into our house” he explains, “I imagined the overgrown weeds in the backyard being our future children playing. I grabbed my guitar and wrote that song in ten minutes.”

Whether you’ve come for raw guitar playing or vocals that grab you by the feels time and again, Michael Lee delivers. “Some of these songs, I can see folks turning the radio up with the windows down” he surmises. “Others might need some candlelight, wine and someone special.” This guy is definitely going places.

KEY CUTS: The Thrill Is Gone, Don’t Leave Me, Go Your Own Way

RISE FROM THE FLAMES Heather Newman (Vizztone) *****
It might not be PC to say this, but Rise From The Flames, Newman’s second album, is
one of the most aggressively sexy blues albums maybe ever. This singer/songwriter/
bassist has just made a powerful statement.

Twist the Knife, as you might guess from the title, is fuelled by romantic betrayal. It’s Heather’s personal story of coming to terms with the end of a relationship and all that means, including rediscovering her own self worth. It’s a lyrically powerful record, well matched by Newman’s sassy vocals and the playing of her frankly exceptional band.

Aside from Heather on bass, vocals and acoustic guitar, her Kansas City band includes Ryan Matthew on vocals, keys and percussion, Keith Ladd on lead guitar and Adam Watson on drums. The grooving here, often slow and grinding, is hypnotic. The blue seasoning of Matthew’s organ playing, while not always front and centre, offers up some heartbreaking atmospherics that perfectly compliment Heather’s throbbing bass lines. His electric piano on a song like His Soul is pretty cool too.

Twist The Knife is a deeply emotional record with Keith Ladd’s guitar, sometimes barely restrained, providing as much impact as Newman’s vocals. Maybe calling this a sexy sounding album wasn’t quite on the mark- ‘sultry’ is a better word. Heather is
giving whomever her romantic betrayer might be, a taste of “and this is what you’re missing” in the overall sound and feel, in addition to her confident lyrical declarations.

Sassy and sultry is a good way to sum up this ass-kicking album. It positively reeks of truth and you can feel the heat- Twist The Knife is exceptional.

KEY CUTS: I’m Coming For You, Lonely On Beale, Take It Slow

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