NO TIME LIKE NOW Steve Strongman (Sonic Unyon) *****
Every once in awhile, a musician comes along that embodies the music he or she plays. Where someone like Jimmy Page is rock & roll, Steve Strongman is the blues. His latest, No Time Like Now, is a slab of 21st century blues that you really need to hear.
No Time Like Now wanders all over the place within the blues, from rough hewn electric stuff to blue collar hollers and swampy stompers to soulful grooviness and, of course, ballads. Strongman’s specialty is dirty, greasy blues, and there’s plenty of that to enjoy here. The effect of this collection of songs is quite primal, it feels like we’re getting closer than ever to the source as opposed to some abstract idea of the blues. The same structures and progressions that animate blues and roots music can also choke the air out of it, smothering it in caricature and cliché. But Strongman is subtle shape-shifter who slips that trap without betraying the music he loves.
No Time Like Now was produced by Rob Szabo, who also plays bass on several cuts. Randy Bachman guests on an extremely cool reading of the BTO classic You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet, playing the 2nd solo on this bluesy version of one of his biggest hits, and I’ll bet he had a blast doing it. Except for that track, all of these songs are Strongman/ Szabo compositions as Steve continues to push himself in new directions within the blues. There’s a truthfulness and authenticity to No Time Like Now that puts him on the same level as some of the old masters, and blues fans will pick up on that right away.
In Steve Strongman’s hands the blues is a full-blooded living thing, not some museum piece, and that’s never been more evident than it is here on No Time Like Now. From emotional vocals to blistering guitar solos that give you the goose bumps, this is one disc that just keeps on giving.
KEY CUTS: Bring The Hammer Down, You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet, The Day they Carry Me Away
BLUES ON MY SHOULDERS Peter Ward (Gandy Dancer) ****
This is the first solo project for Boston-based guitarist Peter Ward, and it’s a beauty. With an unhurried, improvisational style he picked up from his heroes in The Muddy Waters Blues Band, Ward has fashioned a casual masterpiece.
Blues On My Shoulders is a pretty easy going slice o’ blues that relies on loose playing from Peter as well as guests like former roommate Ronnie Earl on guitar, Sax Gordon Beadle on sax, and the guys from Sugar Ray & The Bluetones. This disc has the feel of a bunch of guys gathering in the studio, just to see what might happen- coming out with an album almost as if by accident… though these songs and performances are intentional, it has that vibe. It’s like Billy Gibbons once said when talking about the intro to La Grange; “The best things happen when you’re not paying attention.”
As a teenager growing up in Lewiston, Maine, Peter and his brother Michael listened intently to blues records and went to see Muddy Waters, Buddy Guy, Junior Wells, Taj Mahal and Hubert Sumlin whenever they performed in the area, and I’m sure those guys would be pleased to know that Peter is carrying on their blues traditions in his own way. “In the Big Apple, I was thrilled when Otis Rush told me I played chords like an old man” Ward remembers fondly. In that way, Blues On My Shoulders is a record that straddles generations; though it just came out October 20th, it has that classic feel that makes all those classic old blues sides musically relevant today.
There’s something about the uncomplicated, unhurried vibe of this disc that reaches the soul, that makes me want to pick up my acoustic guitar and learn some blues- I think I will, and learn the chords as I go. Though not as loaded with guitar firepower as the blues records I consistently rate this highly, Blues On My Shoulder is inspiring.
KEY CUTS: Which Hazel, It’s On Me, Southpaw
UP ALL NIGHT Albert Castiglia (Ruf) *****
Before you throw this one in the CD player you’d better put on your boogie shoes. Up All Night, Albert Castiglia’s 7th album, is equal parts ZZ Top, Foghat and Johnny Winter- a raw and feral type of blues that will leave you bruised and grateful.
Up All Night takes the concept of a ‘he-man blues guitar player’ to a whole new level with muscular riffs, bare-knuckle soloing, and some slide work that’s giving me ‘the tingles’. This disc follows on the heels of 2016’s Big Dog and finds Castiglia in a creative swagger, following along the same path. He recorded once again at Dockside Studios in Louisiana, capturing a ‘warts-and-all’ mix alongside producer Mike Zito. “I figured the Big Dog session went so well there, why change studios?” Albert says. “I’ll probably record there for the rest of my life.”
As a singer, Castiglia reminds me of a cross between Elvin Bishop and Delbert McClinton. As a guitarist he plays with the brute force of Billy Gibbons meets Buddy Guy. Castiglia theorizes that his new band is partly responsible for that extra fire I’m feeling from Up All Night; “Putting my new band together was a pivotal moment and this recent incarnation has upped my game” he says. He compares drummer Brian Menendez to Ginger Baker and Mitch Mitchell and bassist Jimmy Pritchard’s rock solid fat tones to Bill Wyman- if the name wasn’t already taken, he could call them ‘The Wrecking Crew’.
Guests on Up All Night include Mike Zito on guitar and vocals, the wonderful Sonny Landreth on slide, and Johnny Sansone on harp. Lots of high octane stuff on this disc to be sure, but then there’s the all acoustic You Got To That Place and Unhappy House of Blues, which features lyrics by Cyril Neville. “(Those lyrics) bring me back to unhappier times when I was a struggling musician and I had no support from who I was with” he notes. “I think anybody can relate to these tunes.”
Up All Night isn’t just the good stuff, it’s the great stuff.
KEY CUTS: Hoodoo On Me, Unhappy House Of Blues, Quit Your Bitching, title track
LET THE DEMONS OUT Ghalia & Mama’s Boys (Ruf) *** +
Just 4 short years ago, Ghalia was busking on the streets of Brussels and doing double duty in a couple of bands. Ghalia Vauthier then set her sights on America and hasn’t looked back- Let The Demons Out is a sign of big things to come.
Once on this side of the pond, Ghalia took her interest in rocket fuelled R&B to the cultural nerve centers of the USA, from Chicago and Memphis to Nashville and Mississippi. “The first time I went to America was like a musical pilgrimage to discover the places all my favorite songs talked about” she says. “The second time, things became real. I started singing where my heroes sang. I was strolling where they used to walk, buying booze maybe at their favorite liquor store, driving the same highways, watching sunsets in the same cotton fields. Then, from sitting in with local artists I began to get my own shows.”
It was while in Louisiana that Ghalia fell in with Johnny Mastro & Mama’s Boys and the seeds for Let The Demons Out were sown. The result is a dozen rough ‘n’ ready roadhouse boogie stompers that sound like one of the best parties ever. Produced by Dean Zucchero and Ghalia, this disc has a rough somewhat lo-fi charm that really works- you can almost smell the Friday night sweat and spilled beer on this one, and there are grooves a-plenty to keep you on the dance floor all night long.
Some sweet slow burning jams on Let The Demons Out too, of course, like Addiction and Hey Little Baby, making this a fairly well rounded album. “We’re not aiming to replicate traditional blues” Ghalia says, “but rather to push the songwriting and playing to a point at which we discover something new and hopefully fresh while still maintaining a blues vibe.” Whether they’ve achieved that is debatable, but with Let The Demons Out they’re certainly well on their way.
KEY CUTS: 4AM Fried Chicken, Addiction, title track
MEANING OF LIFE Kelly Clarkson (Atlantic Records) **** ½
As much as I think of myself as a blues guy and a rock guy, as a product of the 60’s I’ve always been into catchy, well-crafted pop music. Not a lot of that being made today, but Clarkson is an exception. After winning the inaugural season of American idol in 2002, she’s gone on to fashion an impressive recording career, winning awards and releasing 7 albums prior to this one. Meaning Of Life is her first disc for Atlantic; full of short, catchy tunes- all under 4 minutes… and it will likely be a monster.
Back in my day (said the old fart) it used to be one incredible producer with an engineer at his side, and one artist or band cutting legendary albums, but that’s not how it gets done anymore. For Meaning of Life Kelly has gathered a stellar team of top songwriters and producers, but it’s her incredibly expressive voice that carries the day on these 14 songs. Tracks like Slow Dance are hypnotically romantic, not unlike a classic Aretha Franklin ballad (and there are a few of those here), while numbers like Medicine are designed to fill the dance floor.
I think what appeals to me most about Kelly Clarkson’s new album is that it’s an intriguing mix of vintage and current pop sound-craft that creates some thing verging on timeless. While it’s true many of these songs employ some of the modern studio trickery and computer assembly that drives me buggy, the heart in the music is more easily discernable than it has been in some of her past stuff. The way Clarkson is singing here puts her in the same league as Christina Aguilera, a comparison I do not make lightly.
Kelly Clarkson’s musical career to date has been littered with big albums featuring even bigger hit singles, but Meaning Of Life is set to kick her into another gear entirely. This stuff isn’t just ‘good’, time will prove it to be classic.
KEY CUTS: Didn’t I, Slow Dance, Meaning of Life
LIVE FEATURING LAURA CHAVEZ Casey Hensley (Vizz Tone) *** ½
This kid (25 years old) from California has quite the set of pipes. Following in the tradition of the greats like Katie Webster and Etta James, Casey Hensley is an out and out blues belter, and Live Is one hell of a ride.
Casey started singing onstage at 5 years old and was in the studio at 9 years old. She grew up listening to artists like Etta James, Aretha Franklin. Ella Fitzgerald, Janis Joplin, Otis Redding, Ray Charles, The Allman Brothers, Led Zeppelin, The Temptations, Freddie Mercury and many more- you can hear and feel all of these influences when she steps up to the mic for these 11 cuts.
The band is Casey on vocals, Laura Chavez on guitar, Evan Caleb Yearsley on drums, Johnny Viau on sax and bassist Marco C. It can be accurately said that together, they make a joyful noise. As a singer Hensley holds absolutely nothing back when she sinks her teeth into a song, and the band really leans into it as they play each song with such glee. On a slower blues like Don’t Want It To Stop I love the tug and pull between power and restraint in Casey’s voice- the band lays right back and, on more than one occasion, her voice nearly overpowers the song; but she keeps herself in check… just barely.
Live is a mix of original tunes and blues classics written by people like Big Mama Thornton, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, Koko Taylor and Willie Dixon, but Casey and the band sing and play each like they own them, doing it with an uncomplicated zeal like they mean it. If I walked into some dive bar and these guys were playing, I’d never want to leave.
KEY CUTS: Don’t Want It To Stop, Put Your Lovin’ Where It Belongs, Voodoo Woman