THE CLEANER Dan McKinnon (Alcool) *****
This is as muscular and forceful a collection of rockin’ blues as I’ve come across in a very long time. I’ve always liked McKinnon’s stuff, but with The Cleaner he raises the bar high enough to give everyone else nosebleeds.
Produced by Dan and recorded live to tape at Toronto’s Cantebury Music Company (only one song has overdubs), The Cleaner is a well-captured, intense performance. “My favorite period of blues music (is) the late 60’s to the mid 70’s” observes McKinnon. “Albums like BB King’s Completely Well, Muddy Waters’ Electric Mud and Bobby Bland’s Dreamer were rooted in the blues tradition, contained high quality songwriting, and sounded contemporary for the time. With The Cleaner, I’ve tried to make an album that hit on these three points.” He did that with room to spare.
What really connects with The Cleaner is the soulful fire and reverence for those that paved the way. This disc has a sort of SRV horsepower to it, the band is pounding on all cylinders, and McKinnon’s leads are genuinely thrilling. Respect for the past with an eye to the future- that’s the true magic of The Cleaner.
KEY CUTS: Storm, Thoughtless, One Track Mind
CHOSEN BY THE BLUES Willie Jackson (independent) *****+
This, kids, is your real deal blues. Hailing from Savannah, Georgia, Willie is blessed with a deep, rumbling voice that you just believe when he sings. I only wish that Chosen By The Blues was more than just a 6 song EP!
As with so many others in the blues, Willie Jackson came up through the church- singing in choirs, raising hymns and providing music for the faithful. He has a fantastic band swinging behind him including Ace Anderson, whose harmonica work is as spellbinding as Willie’s singing. As blues discs go Chosen By The Blues is quite traditional, and therein lies its charm. Combine this bluesiness with Willie Jackson’s witty lyrical observations on contemporary life (all 6 tracks are originals), and these songs sound like something Muddy Waters or Howlin’ Wolf would have sung.
As The Tybee Beachcomber observes, Willie Jackson “reaches in and grabs you by the soul”- that’s Chosen By The Blues and its beautiful, unforgettable songs. This is one of the coolest things you’ll hear this year.
KEY CUTS: Big Boned Woman, Why You Still Mad?
LUCKY HAND Steve Dawson (Black Hen music) *****++
As I listened to this disc, my Fender acoustic sat quietly in the corner of my music room, judging; “You could sound like this if you practiced once in a while!” Uh no Freddie, no- it takes a lifetime to become this good. Lucky Hand, Steve Dawson’s 8th album, is astounding from start to finish.
Though I’ve heard Dawson’s music previously this feels new, more intense. His approach to slide and finger style guitar is unforced and natural, revealing an embarrassment of musical riches at every turn. The playing is fluid as he uses snatches of musical ideas, from dustbowl history and the Delta blues along with modern touches and nods to players like Leo Kottke and Sonny Landreth.
With Lucky Hand Dawson sketches aural paintings and creates tapestries on his guitar. It was recorded live off the floor with 12 microphones placed around the large studio space, particularly useful on the five cuts that use a string section. I haven’t been this excited by a disc of acoustic instrumentals since first coming across Tommy Emmanuel or Graham Wardrop- both Aussies, by the way. This is am insanely inspiring record.
KEY CUTS: The Circuit Rider Of Pigeon Force, Old Hickory Breakdown, Bugscuffle
IT’S A BLUES WORLD… CALLING ALL BLUES Sugar Brown (independent) *****
This, Sugar Brown’s 3rd album, is a warm, intimate beauty with large charm. Recorded direct to quarter inch tape on two tracks, It’s A Blues World is as close to actual time travel as you’re likely to get.
Though Blues World sounds old, all the tracks are new Sugar Brown compositions. Of this new record he says “Each song here is a blues world. They go from country to urban, from the ‘30s to ‘70s, but they are little worlds within the blues.” In considering his preferred recording method, Sugar says “By using the technologies of older recording, I want to give the listener a different sonic listening experience than what we’ve come to blindly accept from digital recording.”
The growth from his debut, 2014’s Sugar Brown’s Sad Day to now is noticeable as Sugar Brown continues to zero in on offering an authentic blues listening experience. His knowledge of the form is immense and articulate, and I believe every note he plays and sings. With It’s A Blues World, blues lovers could scarcely be in better hands.
KEY CUTS: What I Know, Hummingbird (not the BB King tune), Brothers
THE ONE MAN BLUES ROCK BAND Steve Hill (No Label Records) ****
Hard to believe it’s just one guy making all this racket! For his 10th album Montreal guitarist Steve Hill has released a live disc, to capture the energy and intensity of his concerts. The One Man Blues Rock Band is good old-fashioned fist pumpin’/ beer drinkin’ blues-drenched boogie.
The vibe here wild and hairy knuckle draggin’ rock & roll, and I’m sure that label suits Steve just fine. One Man was recorded last November at La Chapelle in Quebec City. “I wanted a live album that would capture the energy of all my concerts” he says. “I’ve been wanting for 20 years to release a live album. That evening in Quebec City was perfect and it gives, in my opinion, my best record- the one I’ve always wanted to do.”
“Steve Hill may not sound anything like Motorhead, but I think Lemmy would applaud his rock ‘n’ roll spirit” raves Blues Enthused. One Man isn’t polished perfection, it’s wild, feral, loud and proud… and, as Paul Stanley might ask, “isn’t that what rock & roll is all about?”
KEY CUTS: Nothing New, Voodoo Child (Slight Return), Tough Luck
ICONS OF THE NEW DAYS Lords Of Black (Frontiers) ****
Spanish metal, anyone? This is their 3rd studio album since forming in 2014 and, thanks to singer Ronnie Romero’s association with Ritchie Blackmore’s Rainbow, people are giving this band the once over. I, for one, really like what I’m hearing.
The vision when Lords Of Black first got together was to play metal with a modern approach yet be catchy, melodic and progressive. When Blackmore signed up the Chilean born Romero to front a new incarnation of Rainbow, he touted the singer as “a cross between Ronnie James Dio and Freddie Mercury”… I mean, how can you not be curious about that? Still, I think Ritchie sold him short- there’s a lot more to this cat vocally, and Icons Of The New Days is your proof.
Icons reminds me somewhat of Stryper’s new album, but that could be because I was just listening to it yesterday. If you’re into powerful (but not blast beat) drumming, and walls of nasty, distorted but melodic guitar get your motor runnin’, few albums put out so far this year will show you a better time than Icons of The New Days. Guitarist Tony Hernando and drummer Andy C. had previously worked together in “Saratoga”, and that musical relationship continues to bear fruit here with guitars and drums in virtual lockstep to dense and powerful effect.
I would guess that Ronnie Romero took up with Blackmore at least in part to shine some of the spotlight on Lords of Black and it seems to have worked. Would I have even opened the download without that? Probably not. Lords Of Black is still a young band and they’re just getting warmed up. Anybody that says or thinks rock and metal are dying needs to put Icons Of The New Days on and just shut up. Powerful and inspiring is what this disc is.
KEY CUTS: The Edge of Darkness, World Gone Mad, Fallin’