Music Reviews by the Rock Doctor
By John Kereiff.
COME ON IN Thorbjorn Risager & The Black Tornado (Ruf) *****+
Have you ever followed an artist and thought “their last album was so great I don’t see how they can top it”? That’s how I feel about Thorbjorn Risgar & The Black Tornado, and be damned if they haven’t done just that with their 10th album, Come On In. The melancholy swing that powers many of these tunes is compelling.
“Some people think the blues is sad because it’s named after the color of the melancholy and has its roots in music played by the slaves in the United States” Thorbjorn observes. “But you have to remember that this was music that people gathered around when they were trying to relax from their hardships. It emerged in festive situations and was meant to be danced to.” Listen to Come On In or any of the records that came before (I have 3 others) and it becomes obvious he knows exactly what he’s talking about.
Risager sits with his acoustic guitar to create the core of the songs then gives them over to the band to work their voodoo. The result, as heard on the new record, mixes elements of gospel, funk and blues wrapped around his distinctive voice that recalls Ray Charles. “The blues is my outlet” he says. “This time, I’ve written some songs about having doubts about whether I’m in the right place in my life. However, there’s something fundamental in my song writing that seeks the light.” Yeah- throwing Come On In into the CD player can be a healing experience.
Though these guys call Denmark home they’re making waves with their explosive live shows, and it’s no wonder with songs like these to take to the stage. As a kid Thorbjorn fell asleep listening to Fats Domino and Muddy Waters cassettes, and you can tell he has those blues in his bloodstream- he means it, he feels it. The album’s title track highlights the uplifting community he and The Tornado want to create, like a bar where everyone is welcome. Risgaer had The Mojo Blues Club in Copenhagn in mind when he wrote the song because “that’s where we in the band grew up and many of us met our girlfriends.”
Come On In is a powerful blues experience, traditional with some fresh twists and turns, sure to make many Best Of lists at the end of the year- including mine.
KEY CUTS: Love So Fine, Come On In, Last Train, Two Lovers
CULT CLASSIC Blue Oyster Cult (Frontiers) ****
HARD ROCK LIVE CLEVELAND 2014 Blue Oyster Cult (Frontiers) ***
BOC’s label greases the wheels for a new studio album due sometime this year. Cult Classic is a reissue of a record from 1994 that includes re-mastered new recordings of many of their biggest hits and given the thin sound of previous hits cd’s, I’m digging this. It’s similar to the move Kiss pulled with their 2009 Sonic Boom album, which includes a bonus disc of classics re-recorded by the current line-up of the band- it did not suck. The live album here I’ve not heard before.
The Cult Classic roster includes members from the glory days; Eric Bloom, Donald “Buck Dharma” Roeser and Allen Lanier, with bassist Jon Rogers and drummer Chuck Burgi, who has played with practically everybody… his current gig is with Billy Joel. With a re-recorded hits album like this, any fan will stack these new versions up against the originals and I gotta say in most cases they compare favourably. Perhaps it’s the recording, production or mastering that makes the difference, but on Cult Classic it feels like the songs have a little more meat on their bones, some muscle and a bit of gristle. I’m happy to have both versions of each song in my library.
For Hard Rock Live Cleveland 2014, Eric Bloom and Donald “Buck Dharma” Roeser are still fronting the band, with Richie Castellano on keys, Jules Radino on drums and Kasim Sulton on bass. The recording is decent though the rhythm guitar sounds a little murky, but as a fan that’s a small quibble I can live with. Though the performances are competent, it certainly doesn’t have the balls or power that 1975’s On Your Feet Or On Your Knees has but that could be age, and the difference between playing arena shows and club gigs. I’m not saying I don’t like it it’s just not as exciting, although on rockier tunes like Harvester Of Eyes they really sink their teeth into it.
Blue Oyster Cult formed in 1967 and have sold over 24 million records. Cult Classic is a reminder of former glories while also perhaps a hint of things yet to come, and Hard Rock Live is a decent live set. They likely won’t win many converts with either of these, but fans past and present would do well to check them out.
CULT CLASSIC KEY CUTS: This Ain’t The Summer Of Love, M.E. 262
HARD ROCK KEY CUTS: Harvester Of Eyes, Career Of Evil
GOTTA HAVE IT The Jimmys (independent) ****+
If you like your blues slathered in R&B sauce, this kick-ass combo from Madison Wisconsin has what you’re on the lookout for. The Jimmys new album Gotta Have It is pretty much exactly what a good time sounds like.
The Jimmys have worked up quite a head of steam to get to this point; multiple awards including Blues Performer, Contemporary Blues Album and Artist of The Year. Lots of people including contemporaries are paying attention and it’s no wonder. The music ranges from jubilant R&B to down and out blues and the musicianship is razor sharp. Gotta Have It was produced by Grammy winning producer Tony Braunagel, and it feels like he’s captured them at their best and in their natural habitat. New Orleans legend Marcia Ball pitches in on vocals too, and had a hand in writing Write A Hit, giving an already exciting batch of songs a kick in the pants.
To the mix of R&B and blues at play here, the horn section gives songs like Take You Back some big band sass, a cheekiness that really makes Gotta Have It stand out. Blues guitar great Tommy Castro says “I love this record- good tunes, great playing, great band” while premier blues DJ Bill Wax praises the disc as “tight, well crafted songs, fabulous players and strong vocals”. He also adds “What are you waiting for? Go get it!” After a couple of spins through this, I’d say they’re on the right track. This is what it sounds like when everyone involved is at the top of their game and having a blast.
Gotta Have It ain’t no down-and-out or back porch blues, it’s an upbeat and extremely lively affair that, if it’s playing in your headphones or ear buds, will put a bounce in your step. Apart from stunning musicianship this disc just makes you feel real good, and who couldn’t use some more of that?
KEY CUTS: Take You Back, Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet (not the BTO tune), Someday Baby
BLIND LEMON SESSIONS Mick Kolassa (Endless Blues Records) *****
The latest from Kolassa feels like a long drink of ice-cold water on a hot summer’s day, it just hits the spot. Blind Lemon Sessions is laid back acoustic blues- a mix of old favourites, new favourites and a couple of new compositions. It’s likely one of best blues albums you’ll hear this year.
The genesis of this record was an invitation from Germany’s Blind Lemon Records to do some shows overseas and record a couple of songs for a compilation. What began as a couple of tracks kept growing until it became the album we have here. Mick experiments with different chords and keys, stretching his voice as he travels through several blues sub-genres, an exploration of what he calls ‘free range blues’. New tunes like Text Me Baby might fit best under the ‘Americana’ label, but call these songs what you will… its tasty music played without electricity.
There are half a dozen musicians taking part, with Alice Hasen’s violin being particularly enjoyable as it brings an ‘old-timey’ feel to the proceedings. I love the range of songs within Blind Lemon Sessions’ walls, from a slow but unexpectedly heartfelt plea that The Beatles’ Help has turned into here to Ditty Wah Ditty which I can imagine The Soggy Bottom Boys doing. The juxtaposition of the modern concerns voiced in Text Me Baby against the gentle acoustic backdrop is delightful. The album opens with a terrific version of Lonnie Johnson’s Mr. Jellyroll Baker as you settle in to take the ride.
Great songs and fine performances by all, and there’s an intimacy to the songs on Blind Lemon Sessions that makes it feel like meeting up with a long lost friend. This the 5th Mick Kolassa record to join my collection and, truth be told, it’s my favourite- I’ve already listened to it 4 times today.
KEY CUTS: Help, Text Me Baby, I Want To Be Seduced
LEGAL AT LAST Anvil (AFM Records) ****
The kings of Hoser Metal have been on a tear since the 2009 documentary The Story Of Anvil, with Legal At Last being their third album since and 18th overall. Ham-fisted walls of Saxon-meets-Accept riffage, pummelling beats; this is the album you’d hoped it would be, and probably better. It’s actually kind of epic.
I never got into Anvil back in the day, they seemed like Spinal Tap-ish rock goons so I dismissed them out of hand. As Legal At Last blasts on my stereo (the family is out of town) I have to wonder what I’ve been missing. Anvil formed in Toronto in 1978 and the trio still consists of Steve “Lips” Kudlow on vocals and guitar, Robb Reiner on drums and Chris Robertson on bass. According to Reiner the new album celebrates two things. “Canada changed its marijuana laws last year, (and) it’s our way of telling the public ‘it’s okay, Anvil are okay, you’re allowed to like us at last!”
Legal At Last was produced by Martin ‘Mattes’ Pfieffer, as were the last couple of records. He’s worked with U.D.O., so that partly explains why this disc sounds like Accept. The record, engineered and mixed by Jorg Uken, sounds great. “As a band you need to surround yourself with people who share the same passion and commitment” Lips says. “Martin and Jorg have both, and that’s why we make a great team.”
Legal At Last is a journeyman rock record, classic metal in every sense. The band may be over 40 years old now, but they play fast and hard to immensely satisfying effect. Anvil aren’t reinventing the wheel here, and I don’t think they’re interested in doing so. Legal At Last revisits a thousand lost Friday and/or Saturday nights when you’d pass the bong, drink gallons of beer and party with your friends. This will stir up memories for old farts like me, and it will show the kids what they’re missing. All hail Anvil, and long may they run! Street date: Feb.14th.
KEY CUTS: Plastic In Paradise, Glass House, Nabbed In Nebraska
ROTT’N DAN LIGHTNIN’ WILLY Rott’n Dan & Lightnin’ Willy (independent) *****
This is an elemental blues experience with Rott’n Dan Hinnan of harmonica and vocals and Lightin’ Willy Ryan on acoustic guitar and vocals. If you’re into Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee, Mississippi John Hurt and/ or Blind Willie McTell, this disc will speak to you loud and clear.
Rott’n Dan & Lightin’ Willy are an acoustic duo that focuses on pre-war, Piedmont and country blues as they pay homage to arguably some of the blues’ greatest artists like Robert Johnson and Blind Boy Fuller. RD & LW is an old-timey, back porch experience that caresses you like a warm southern breeze from way down south. This, their debut, is half originals and half personal favourites that blues fans are sure to recognize.
RD & LW weaves in and out of various blues styles from the Mississippi Delta and Chicago as well as the ragtime and vaudeville eras. As two lads from Canada’s north (Edmonton), their mastery and self assurance across these styles is startling; it sounds like they’re parked on a back porch in Clarksdale on a hot summer’s afternoon, a jug of spiked lemonade sweating generously on a rickety side table between them as they play. Dan and Willy really get down into it and let the music carry them away- listening to this disc is a similar experience.
Rott’n Dan & Lightin’ Willy is a warm and welcoming listening experience; not a Friday night party record certainly, but the kind of thing that feels just right when you’re sitting around with a handful of close friends talking about everything. From Mississippi John Hurt’s I’m Satisfied to more modern concerns like the original tune Lead Water Blues, this is ultimately an album about life, and it’s a beautiful thing.
KEY CUTS: Coliseum Station Blues, Lead Water Blues, Mercedes Benz
ICE CREAM IN HELL Tinsley Ellis (Alligator) *****+
In the mood for guitar heroics? Like muscle in your blues? Tinsley Ellis’s new album is quite a ride. Rugged, burning and riveting- that’s Ice Cream in Hell.
Ice Cream In Hell is a scorcher from front to back- hardly surprising for those that know Ellis’s music. As a guitarist he plays with the fervent, dramatic muscle of Stevie Ray Vaughan, and as a singer he reminds me of BB King. 17 albums came before this one and there are some who call him a ‘blue collar bluesman’ but he scoffs at that, quipping “No- I’m part of the no-collar crowd.” Tinsley is a raw, high octane, hard-rocking bluesman of which The Chicago Sun-Times says “It’s hard to overstate the raw power of his music.”
Tinsley Ellis has been a road warrior for 40 years now but, as he dryly observes “a musician never got famous staying home.” I’ve always said that the blues is most effective in a alive setting and Ice Cream In Hell, though a studio record, crackles with that kind of energy. This disc was recorded in Nashville and produced by Ellis with his long time co-producer Kevin McKendree (John Hiatt, Delbert McClinton) and it’s a cathartic blast of blues rock power. It packs the wallop of almost any guitar rock & roll record you’d care to name, combined with the natural healing power of the blues.
You gotta like (and agree with) what Rolling Stone Magazine says about Tinsley, that he plays “a feral blues guitar… non-stop gigging has sharpened his six-string to a razor’s edge… his eloquence dazzles… he achieves pyrotechnics that rival early Jeff Beck and Eric Clapton.” From the hellacious energy of the title track to the Santana-esque Everything And Everyone, Ellis has surprising range within his hard edged blues. When he solos, he isn’t just blasting away… although his playing does have that element the solos are quite lyrical too.
Ice Cream In Hell isn’t just one of the best blues records of 2020, history may well judge it as one of the best of all time- it’s that good.
KEY CUTS: Last One To Know, Your Love is Like Heroin, Hole In My Heart
LIGHTNING STRIKES TWICE DeCarlo (Frontiers) **** ½
Here is the debut for a band founded by Tommy DeCarlo and Tommy DeCarlo Junior. Lightning Strikes Twice is melodic rock fastidiously produced that might sound and feel familiar to you; Tommy Sr. has been performing with Boston since 2007.
Lightning Strikes will certainly remind you of Boston with healthy doses of Foreigner, Survivor and REO Speedwagon as well. “I’ve always written for myself, for my own enjoyment” DeCarlo says, “it was something I did simply to pass the time, never thinking anything would come of it- but now it has.” Though you can feel his time with Boston in the melodies and vocals here, he’s moving beyond ‘2nd banana’ status in a once great band. “Frontiers has given me the opportunity to take my music to the next level” he says of his new label. “The world will finally get to hear the music of Tommy DeCarlo!”
This band from Charlotte, North Carolina, aside from Tommy Sr. & Jr., also includes drummer Dan Hitz and bassist Brett Nelson. The songs on Lightning Strikes Twice are tight, very melodic and extremely well played. Tommy’s voice isn’t a carbon copy of Brad Delp, but as the current voice and keyboard player of Boston he has the range and clarity to cover those classics. You have to think, too, that the years he has spent singing Boston songs has rubbed off in the writing and performance here; it certainly sounds that way. Tunes like Stand Up have the unique ability to sound fresh and retro at the same time- I daresay that could be said of all of ‘em here.
Lightning Strikes Twice is a throwback to the 80’s when well-played melodic rock ruled until the advent of grunge but here and now, in the age of machine made music and artificial perfection, that 80’s vibe feels fresh. I’m delightfully surprised at how much I’m enjoying the lift this album is supplying. It’s easy to like on the first play, and it wears extremely well- an excellent sign.
KEY CUTS: A Better Day, Lightning Strikes Twice, Stand Up (Play Ball)