A GULF COAST CHRISTMAS Various Artists (Gulf Coast Records) *****+
This is one of the coolest holiday records ever, and I’m a guy with a Grinchy reputation. A Gulf Coast Christmas features a pile of label artists giving Santa a delicious case of the blues- 7 original tunes plus 9 holiday classics, all superbly played. GCC is at least the equal of Alligator Records’ holiday compilations, and I friggin’ LOVE those.
A Gulf Coast Christmas is holiday music but over and above that it’s spine tingling blues. Many of these 18 artists you may know from this column; Diane Rein, Albert Castilgia, Jimmy Carpenter, Mike Zito, Kevin Burt. I was genuinely curious to hear what they’d do with the holidays. For many people (like me) Christmas is a hard time, so for us these songs are pretty terrific company. There are numbers here everyone will recognize like Blue Christmas, Back Door Santa and Santa Claus Is Back In Town.
Mike Zito, who co-founded the label in 2018, blows the doors open with the grinding All I Got For Christmas Is The Blues, very George Thorogood, and he brings this holiday party to a close at the other end with Chuck Berry’s Run Rudolph Run. In between we get to thrill to Tony Campanella’s stunning version of Santa Claus Wants Some Lovin’ and the classic Merry Christmas Baby with John Blues Boyd, Lisa & Kid Andersen. I gotta say though, the song that really steals the show is an original from Leroux called Who Da Baby Daddy, a cheeky and catchy rumination on the birth of Jesus that will surely offend Christian purists but hey, that’s part of the fun.
A Gulf Coast Christmas cross pollinates holiday imagery and hard blues with spectacular results. There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that this year, and in the years to come, A Gulf Coast Christmas will come to be viewed as essential holiday listening… not just for blues fans, but for everyone. Release date: Nov.13th
KEY CUTS: All I Got For Christmas is The Blues (Mike Zito), Who Da Baby Daddy? (Leroux), Santa Claus Wants Some Lovin’ (Tony Campanella)
THIS OLD HOUSE Bran Sanders (independent) *** ½
All the talking heads on the news programs can quack about lately is the American election debacle, Covid-19 and how we’re all doomed. Against that backdrop comes this gently inspiring set of sparse, intimate folk songs from Bran Sanders. This Old House, out November 16th, is mostly just Bran, his acoustic guitar, and spellbinding stories.
Sanders calls himself “a folk singer and occasional song writer”. Though he now calls West Kelowna home, he grew up in rural Ontario and counts Doc Watson and Dave Von Ronk as influences and heroes. A semi-nomadic lifestyle led him down the path of old-time folk music, discovering a wealth of music just waiting for him. From Victoria to Toronto and all points in between, his live performances that combine thoughtfully told stories with simple yet memorable songs have left audiences wanting more.
As much as I enjoy loud rock & roll, blues/rock and heavy metal when my energy requires it, I find the intimate storytelling of This Old House just as engaging in a completely different way. As a voracious reader I’ve always enjoyed a well told story, and Sanders has gathered a half dozen old folk songs along with three of his own- Let It Go, Welcome Back and Sparrow- to take you away and out of your head, even if just for awhile. That’s something folk music was built for- something of an oral tradition to pass stories from one generation to the next. I guess that makes Bran a musical archaeologist, and it sounds like he’s enjoying the work.
You’ll find darkness and light on This Old House, more emotionally than anything else. Bran Sanders’ gentle, soothing voice is relaxing, making you more receptive each tale as he lays it out, and you’ll see yourself in some of these songs too. Add his gentle picking to that and this is a tough album to resist.
KEY CUTS: Welcome Back, I’ve Been All Around The World, Red Rocking Chair
UNEMPLOYED HIGHLY ANNOYED Jeremiah Johnson (Ruf) *****
This disc just blew the roof off my music room. Johnson has taken all the angst, anguish and uncertainty of the pandemic and channeled it directly into the songs on Unemployed Highly Annoyed. Like a cross between Derek & the Dominoes-era Clapton and the grittiest, nastiest 70’s southern rock you can imagine, this record has HUGE balls.
“I think we caught lightning in a bottle with this snapshot of these difficult times’ says Johnson. “It is possibly the best record of my career, born from the most challenging time in my life as a musician.” He started 2020 on a high note, anticipating to tour behind his successful last album Heavens To Betsy, but of course it was not to be. “Being forced into unemployment has been beyond frustrating” he observes,. “I decided to produce an album of songs inspired by the Covid-19 pandemic and try to turn the roller coaster of emotions into something musical.” He has, and the results are exciting.
The band on Unemployed is Jeremiah on guitar and vocals, Tony Antonelli (The Devon Allman Project) on drums, and Paul Niehaus on bass and keys, also engineering and producing the sessions. There’s a feral rock & roll energy in every groove here that’s perfect in its imperfection. “We weren’t worried about the ‘perfect’ notes and achieving that polished sound” Jeremiah says, “in fact I went old school; one guitar plugged straight into the amp. We love the passion and energy of the songs, so we kept it as live as possible to preserve the emotion. It’s 3 unemployed musicians who are extremely frustrated, quickly going broke and trying to do something about it!”
I must salute Jeremiah, Tony and Paul for taking that level of frustration and channelling it into this unforgettable collection of guitar-driven, wall-punching, knuckle dragging, gutbucket blues numbers. You can hear the frustration in Jeremiah’s voice and you can feel it in everyone’s playing too. They’re fed up and pissed off, and in turn, we’re in for a wild ride. Fans of guitar-driven blues absolutely must not miss this one.
KEY CUTS: Different Plan For Me, Burn Down The Garden, Rock N Roll For The Soul
IF YOU CAN’T BE GOOD, BE GOOD AT IT! Mick Kolassa (Endless Blues) *****
Another set of free range blues from “Mississippi Mick” here. Full of upbeat and supple grooves, joy and sorrow, If You Can’t Be Good is as sweet as the blues can be.
Kolassa has teamed up again with Jeff Jensen to produce what is arguably his best album yet. If You Can’t Be Good was recorded in the middle of the pandemic- doing an album that sounds this together is no easy feat. Mick and Jason gathered some musical friends from Memphis and surrounding areas and the results I daresay are pure magic… a blues album for today that also carries a sense of blues history with it.
There are a couple of covers on the disc, and the fact that they sit so well with Mick’s original tunes speaks well of his songs; Kolassa does James Taylor’s Lo And Behold and takes on Howlin’ Wolf’s Who’s Been Talking as well. You’ll find high spirited, fun songs throughout like Goodnight Irene (no, not the song your thinking of) which serve to cast slow burning blues numbers like A Good Day For The Blues and Slow And Easy Love in dramatic relief. The core band of Mick (vocals, acoustic guitar), Jeff Jensen (guitars), Bill Ruffino (Bass), John Blackmon (drums), Rick Steff (keys) and Eric Hughes (harmonica) are augmented by no fewer than 9 special guests, including Willie “Too Big” Hall, who pounds the skins on the Howlin’ Wolf cover.
With Mick’s charmingly gruff voice and playful way with a lyric, If You Can’t Be Good has the charm of a Long John Baldry disc like Right To Sing The Blues. Kolassa is at his disarming best throughout this album- at first you’re just enjoying the company, but before long you’re in deep. Lots of great cuts here for me to use on my blues radio show when I’m not just leaning back in my chair and enjoying the whole record.
If You Can’t Be Good, Be Good At It! (a phrase Mick often uses in conversation) is not only as good a blues record as I’ve heard this year, it’s also one of the most enjoyable on so many levels. As with his other 7 discs, 100% of the net proceeds will go to the Blues Foundation, split between the Hart Fund and Generation Blues- find out more at www.blues.org
KEY CUTS: A Good Day For The Blues, She Kept Her Head Up, Lo And Behold
STAR OF STAGE AND SCREENS Bob Margolin (Vizztone) ***
Bob’s album from last year, This Guitar and Tonight, won a Blues Music Award for Best Acoustic Album. He’s just followed it up with Star Of Stage and Screens, a 6 song EP that addresses the Coronavirus, isolation and the halt of live music. It’s just Bob, his voice and his 1930’s Gibson acoustic. I understand and applaud his inspiration, but would’ve liked this even more if the subject matter wasn’t quite so narrow.
“I’d like to distract us from the largest world tragedy of my lifetime” Bob says, “but I must confront it musically. At its brightest, one song on this EP looks forward to an ‘after party’ someday. At it’s saddest, it mourns those we lost.” He adds “Let’s stand together with love and respect and cope, survive, and make new opportunities out of the ruins of the old days.” I’ll go one step further with that thought and say that, as I write this review on America’s election night, it should also apply to whatever may come after the votes are all counted and a winner has been declared.
Bob Margolin is Muddy Waters’ old guitar player so listening to him play is always a treat, but his isn’t the strongest singer. Having said that, though, there is a certain charm in his occasionally wobbly vocals… it makes Star Of Stage feel more casual and intimate. His self titled 2018 album Bob Margolin was a train wreck to my ears, but last year’s aforementioned This Guitar and Tonight was excellent; in terms of context, I’d place Star Of Stage pretty much smack dab in the middle.
This whole Coronvirus thing really started in March with massive lockdowns and as new cases continue to spike, we’re still dealing with it on a daily basis. Many of us are getting tired of ‘Corona this’ and “pandemic that’, so there is a danger in releasing an EP of songs about that very subject. Perhaps a better use of Bob’s formidable talents would’ve been 1-2 songs on the subject, followed by a fistful of songs about the future and looking forward to a new day, as After Party does- just a thought. Not his strongest effort, but Star Of Stage and Screens is still very much welcome in my CD collection.
KEY CUTS: Love And Thanks, Let It Go