CROWING IGNITES Bruce Cockburn (True North Records) ****
A gorgeous instrumental album from Bruce Cockburn, the musicianship from Cockburn and a stellar cast of sympathetic musicians on Crowing Ignites is faultless. As producer Colin Linden says, “it’s amazing how much Bruce can say without saying anything.”
The title Crowing Ignites is a literal translation of the Latin motto “Accendit Cantu” featured on the Cockburn family crest. Puzzling yes, but Bruce liked the feeling it conveyed; “Blunt, energetic, Scottish as can be.” The disc is rich in styles from folk to blues and jazz, all of which we’ve heard in his music before. The whole thing was created and recorded in San Francisco, where he now lives.
Crowing Ignites spirits you away to exotic locales without saying a word. It’s relaxing and exciting, spiritual, without a spoken message to sully the music’s intent. “It’s different from songs with lyrics, where you hope listeners will understand, intellectually and emotionally, what you’re trying to convey” Bruce says. “With instrumental stuff, that specificity isn’t there and the meaning is up for grabs.”
Bardo Rush has an urgent rhythm, April In Memphis, composed on Martin Luther King Day is mournful and Blind Willie (the first single), named for one of Bruce’s blues heroes Blind Willie Johnson, features a spirited guitar/ dobro exchange between Cockburn and Linden. No matter where you’re at, there is something on Crowing Ignites for you. Last word goes to Colin Linden; “like the great blues players he admires, Bruce just gets better with age.”
KEY CUTS: Blind Willie, The Groan, April In Memphis, Bells of Gethsemane
THE PREACHER, THE POLITICIAN OR THE PIMP Toronzo Cannon (Alligator) *****
A slice of great Chicago blues here, thick and delicious like the best slice of deep dish pizza you ever had. The Preacher The Politician Or The Pimp is a muscular and spirited set of original tunes you’ll want to play for everybody you know.
Cannon is an exciting guitarist but “it’s not about the solos” he notes, “it’s about the songs. People get used to everyday life so it’s easy to miss the things around them- I write about those things.” Listening to this is more than just thinking “wow, listen to that guy play” although there is some of that. These are songs about life, universal enough that you don’t need to be from Chicago to feel yourself in them.
The title track is particularly applicable to the political climates in the U.S. and Canada. Cannon’s sense of humor shows on cuts like Stop Me When I’m Lying and Ordinary Woman, and does a 360 for The Silence of My Friends, inspired by Martin Luther King Jr. As a musician he came up through the competitive Chicago club scene, like his heroes. Originally interested in reggae, Toronzo notes that “when I started playing the blues I found my voice and the blues came pouring out.” He absorbed the licks and sounds of the Chicago legends, but what comes out when he wraps his hands around that guitar neck is a sound all his own.
The Preacher, The Politician Or The Pimp is hot, righteous blues, made for our times- good luck getting this out of my cd player.
KEY CUTS: title track, Let Me Lay My Love On You, She Loved Me (Again)
B’S HOT HOUSE Al Basile (Sweetspot Records) ****
The 16th album for this eight-time Blues Music Award nominated singer/ songwriter/ cornetist. Inspired by Little Junior Parker, Jimmy McCracklin, Slim Harpo, Booker T & the MG’s, Hot House is a wonderfully soulful experience.
Hot House was produced by Basile’s former boss from Roomful Of Blues, Duke Robillard, who also plays guitar on the record. “I’ve always been privileged to have my friend Duke Robillard as producer and star guitarist, and used his band to back me up, with some added old friends from the Roomful days in the horn section” Al says. His singing is relaxed and comfortable against this backdrop, and his horn playing is inspired by Louis Armstrong, Roy Eldridge and Miles Davis. The Harmon mute he uses on his solos, a technique nicked from Miles, cuts through the sound of Duke’s electric guitar.
The 14 original tracks on Hot House are blues infused R&B as Basile continues to write about real life issues, making his songs very relatable; “If you listen closely, you’ll know what I’m talking about!” Al says. Though there are cool solos from Basile and Robillard throughout they don’t have that show off-y ‘look at me’ feel, their playing serves the song. “I also like the way I’ve learned to write for my voice over the years” he notes, “to ask it to do the things it does best.”
Al Basile has released an album of new music for each of the last nine years, and Hot House is the most likeable of the bunch.
KEY CUTS: Five Roads, Razor Wire, You Don’t Know Lonesome
CUT AND RUN Lloyd Spiegel (Only Blues Music) *****
Australia, a hotbed for the blues? Apparently. Cut And Run takes you from the highest highs to the lowest lows, and you’ll be grateful for every note.
As a singer Spiegel’s voice has a rugged, lived-in phrasing and tone. Whether he’s rocking balls-out or playing an intimate ballad like Let Your Love Lie Down he’s an expressive, articulate guitarist that I can listen to all day. Cut And Run completes a trilogy that started with This Time Tomorrow in 2017 and continued with last year’s Backroads. “The last three years I’ve written one album while touring the previous so it’s a natural progression that each group of songs is a response to the last” Lloyd says. “Cut And Run has a positivity and a clarity in it that, for me, resolves a great deal of the questions I asked myself on the last two albums.”
Cut And Run takes to you on a ride musically and emotionally. When you want to get yer ya-ya’s out the album opener Any Second Now has a George Thorogood-like manic energy. When it’s dark and you want to think about stuff, go to the end of the record for Old Wounds which feels like Springsteen’s Devils & Dust. The energy of the road is all over this, pouring your heart out night after night even if you don’t feel like it.
Cut And Run will speak to your truth, no matter what that is. Cool playing, great songs; go to lloydspiegel.com and get your hands on it.
KEY CUTS: Old Wounds, Any Second Now, The Hustle
SOUL DOCTOR Jimmy Carpenter (Gulf Coast Records) *****
Soul driven blues- that’s the 4th solo album from saxophonist/ singer/ songwriter Jimmy Carpenter. This disc is a stone groove, front to back; Soul Doctor is the right title.
Recorded in Vegas, you’ll find some desert heat on the 10 tracks that comprise Soul Doctor. I’m more attuned to guitar and harp-centric blues, but Carpenter’s sax leads the charge with swagger, confidence and sex appeal. The list of artists Jimmy has worked with is as long as your arm; Mike Zito, Walter Wolfman Washington, Eric Lindell, Tinsley Ellis and Jimmy Thackery. There’s a primitive rock & roll power here that’s impossible not to like. When he tackles Fleetwood Mac’s Need Your Love So Bad, a mid-tempo blues ballad, the fluid bass playing of Jason Langley gives the song a new dimension. Jimmy’s sax solo lights it up, over and above sweet guitar solos from Trevor Johnson & Chris Tofield and Jimmy’s vocal is similar to Peter Green’s original.
Cover songs here include the aforementioned Need Your Love So Bad, The Coasters’ One Mint Julep and Eddie Hinton’s Yeah Man, fine performances all, but the quality of the original material makes it obvious that outside tunes were hardly needed. Label owner and fan Mike Zito calls this “Jimmy’s best record to date. (It) oozes cool and rocks hard with a classic sound that only Jimmy Carpenter can bring to the table.” Soul Doctor has funk and soul wrapped up in the blues, making it sweet music to my ears.
KEY CUTS: Soul Doctor, Need Your Love So Bad, Lo-Fi Roulette
CONTEMPORARY Rick Estrin & The Nightcats (Alligator) *****+
This, the 4th studio set from Rick Estrin & The Nightcats, is a good time from start to finish. Contemporary is blues with a wink and a nod, and superior musicianship.
Estrin is a harmonica virtuoso, a sly, soulful singer, and a snappy dresser. On Contemporary the band explores different sounds and instrumentation, having a blast doing so. “We all had so much fun and were so relaxed, the genius ideas just started pouring in from all sides” Rick says. With Kid Anderson on guitar, keyboard wizard Lorenzo Farrell and drummer Derrick Martin at his side, Estrin has delivered one of the most entertaining blues albums of the decade.
Living Blues calls Contemporary “Hugely entertaining, intelligently conceived and executed roots rock with a wickedly cool and otherworldly twist on tradition.” Who wouldn’t want to give that a listen? The disc delivers on all counts with room to spare. Swingin’ jump blues dominates but Contemporary is all over the map in a really good way. Estrin says that this “is the most fully realized expression of who Rick Estrin & The Nightcats really are and what we’re capable of a band. With the group’s help, everything I envisioned for the songs got turned up a notch.”
Contemporary isn’t just one of the best blues albums of the year, it’s one of the best in any genre period. WAY cool.
KEY CUTS: Contemporary, She Nuts Up, Cupcakin’
REAL STREET Tad Robinson (Severn Records) *****
After a week of listening to mostly straight up blues (and loving it) this one was a refreshing change. Recorded in the birthplace of southern soul, Memphis, Real Street is an ebullient, uplifting, feel-good experience.
Tad Robinson is an eight times nominated singer/ harmonica player, and Real Street finds him in the studio with the legendary Hi Rhythm Section, who Tad says “brought such wisdom, grace and solidarity to my session. I couldn’t have asked for a better vibe in terms of how we all approached playing together.” You can actually feel the love with which these songs were brought to life.
Positivity, romance, subtle musical excellence- it’s all here. One of the 4 covers included on Real Street is a gently swaying, romantic remake of the Bread classic Make It With You that belongs on your next Valentine’s Day playlist. Tad’s smoky, gently persuasive voice recalls some of the great soul giants like O.V. Wright and Al Green, and his understated harmonica work is just the right spice to make this album so very delicious…he doesn’t need to show off every time he steps up.
Real Street is an earthy, well played and sung, straight-from-the-gut-to-the-heart collection that fans of soul and blues will cherish.
KEY CUTS: Make It, Changes, Wishing Well
LIVE À MONTRÉAL Ben Racine Band (independent) **** ½
The Ben Racine Band celebrates their 10th anniversary with a live disc- 11 originals, 4 covers and 2 new tunes. It’s all new to me, and quite enjoyable. If you dig horn driven blues, you’ll enjoy it too.
The Ben Racine Band have backed some major players in the blues field like Kenny “Blues Boss” Wayne and Shakura S’Aida. They’ve been Dawn Tyler Watson’s official band for the last three years, featured on Dawn’s fierce 2016 album Jawbreaker, but this is my first taste of the band by itself. On stage is where the blues breathes deepest, and Live À Montréal is a trip. All of the guys are consummate masters of their instruments, and it’s a treat to hear each one get their turn to stretch out. You don’t have to be a musician to appreciate good playing.
The band has been together for a decade and it shows in the tightness of the lively performances. Co-produced by drummer Nicky Estor, Live À Montréal was recorded at Maison de la culture and Jazz Club Upstairs in front of clearly appreciative audiences. There’s jumpin’ and swingin’ along with some bump and grind too, solid blues with a jazz edge. Capturing the band in their natural environment here was the right call… lots of people are going to discover how good The Ben Racine Band really is.
KEY CUTS: Too Busy Being Pretty, Bootprint, Can’t Wait To See You Again
MAN OF MANY BLUES Paul Gabriel (Smoke Ring Records) **** ¾
Smooth, suave blues from this well travelled New England based guitarist/singer. Combining blues with a jazz sensibility, Man Of Many Blues is a breezy treat.
According to the CD cover special guests include Duke Robillard (who also produced), Christine Ohlman and Sugar Ray Norcia. “This is one of the most special recordings I have ever done” Paul says of the new album. “It’s dedicated to my dear friend , Georgia Lewis, the great 1960’s gospel and blues singer; and it’s also special in that this is my sophomore recording with Duke Robillard producing.” If you know Duke’s work as a player and producer, then you know he has a feel for this strain of blues. There are many more guests on the record too; see the liner notes for details.
Whereas I usually prefer my blues scruffy Man Of Many Blues is the exact opposite yet equally satisfying. The playing is tasty and Christine Ohlman’s soulful backing vocals are a particular highlight. Paul is an award winning musician; no wonder so many were eager to help him on his new record. “I am very grateful for the nominations and awards I have been presented with, as it shows that my efforts for being a messenger of the blues over the last 50 years have been well-received and appreciated” he says. The list of who he hasn’t played with is much shorter than those he has.
With it’s mid-70’s pop/jazz sheen this one took some effort to get into, but Man Of Many Blues won me over. As soon as I finish writing this review, I’m putting it on again.
KEY CUTS: I Feel Good, Blues For Georgia, Man Of Many Blues
DON’T GIVE UP ON THE BLUES Giles Robson (American Showplace) *****
Greasy, dirty, nasty roadhouse-style blues- that’s Giles Robson’s new album, Don’t Give Up On The Blues. This cat blows a mean harp, and this disc is near perfect.
The band here includes Bruce Katz, whose latest album I reviewed a little while ago, on Hammond B3 and piano, and together they make a formidable noise. With guitarist Aaron Lieberman, bassist Anton Goodwin and drummer Ray Hangen, they’ve created a blues experience that feels like Chicago gold. Don’t Give Up On The Blues has a classic vibe that will remind you of some of your favorite blues records without sounding like an imitation. There’s something in the spirit of the playing here, the combined mojo of these particular players, that feels incredible.
Don’t Give Up covers all the bases. It’s got the rough ‘n’ ready almost-but-not-quite sloppy vibe I really enjoy, along with molten harp work from Robson. It’s a serious Saturday night album that promises to inspire you to do the things that you’ll need to repent for on Sunday. All 12 tracks are original, laden with huge, catchy riffs underpinned with the genuine emotion that makes people fall in love with the blues.
Giles Robson is a Blues Music Awards winner and, if I read the press release correctly, this is his debut album in America. Give this one a spin or three- Don’t Give Up On The Blues will have you falling in love with the blues if you haven’t already.
KEY CUTS: title track, Your Dirty Look & Your Sneaky Grin, Way Past Midnight