BLUESIN’ AROUND Donald Ray Johnson & Gas Blues Band (independent) ***Well there’s no mistaking this record is the blues, but that’s just the starting point. It’s groovy and energetic, and a bit cleaner than I would prefer, but it’s still a good time.Donald Ray Johnson enjoyed quite a career as a drummer, playing with Big Mama Thornton, The Isley Brothers and The Commodores- as an original member of A Taste Of Honey, that’s him on drums on the disco classic Boogie Oogie Oogie.The Gas Blues Band was formed five years ago by guitarist/ singer Gaspard “Gas” Ossikian, and their style includes elements of Hendrix, Muddy Waters, ZZ Top and James Brown. That they should combine forces with Donald Ray Johnson is one helluva happy accident. “I met Gaspard in 2004, and we’ve done several tours since” says Donald. “I was very pleased to go to France to record with this great band- it’s been a pleasure working with these stellar musicians.”Bluesin’ Around also includes healthy doses of funk and soul, with some wah-wah “chika-chika” guitar that sounds like the 70’s. Production and mixing by Philippe Scemama is warm and friendly, making this disc a pleasure to hear purely on that level. Of Johnson’s vocal style, Thomas J. Cullen of Blues Review Magazine notes that he is “A restrained vocalist who uses subtlety in lieu of emotional overstatement or sexual braggadocio.” This one is definitely worth checking out.
ESSENTIALS” Ninety Proof, She’s Dressing Trashy, Should’ve Been Gone
57TH AND 9TH Sting (A&M) *****Sting’s latest record is a return to the rock world- in a ‘Sting’ sort of way, of course. After a decade of records like The Last Ship and Songs From The Labyrinth it’s good to hear him making this kind music again.“I write, first of all, to amuse myself” Sting told an interviewer from Australia’s Faster Louder in a piece I found on his website. “For me, the most important element in music is surprise” he continued. “When I choose music to present to the world, I also want to surprise people. So for the last decade I’ve been making, you could call them ‘esoteric’ records, where I was just following my curiosity. So I thought, ‘Okay, what would surprise people now?’” 57th & 9th is the answer to that question.I consider myself a fan and while I applaud that musical curiosity and sense of adventure, I prefer the rock stuff. The only album of his I’ve bought in the new millennium prior to 57th & 9th was The Last Ship in 2013, where my thought was “It’s been awhile since I’ve grabbed a Sting album, time to check him out”- a decent record, but not a real toe tapper.The new disc proves that Sting’s melodic instincts are still intact, and it feels like he’s in comfortable territory. Something I’ve always like about his songs is their depth… while writing pleasing pop melodies, each Sting song is like a well written story or an intelligent conversation. 50,000 was inspired by the shocking loss of so many ‘rock stars’ in the past year. The song Inshallah is about the Middle East crisis and how, as a species, it is in our nature to migrate. Of using that word as a song title, he told NPR (again, in an interview I found on his website) that “It’s a beautiful Arabic word. It literally means If it’s God’s will, then it shall be. But it also implies resignation, it implies humility, it implies hope, it implies courage. And, for me, it implies solidarity. I feel for those people.”If Sting, to you, is albums like Ten Summoner’s Tales and Brand New Day, then 57th & 9th is the record you’ve been waiting for- I know I was.
ESSENTIALS” Pretty Young Soldier, I Can’t Stop Thinking About You, 50,000, Inshallah
MOVING FORWARD Adam Karch (Bros) *****+Every once in awhile a record comes along that just quietly grabs you by the heart and takes your breath away. For me, that record is Moving Forward.Adam Karch is a Montreal-based musician but it’s fair to say that his music embodies the spirit of Americana like a scenic ride across the country. His guitar playing will get you first- a hybrid of acoustic blues with percussive technique and precise finger picking, not unlike Chet Atkins, Keb Mo’ or Kelly Joe Phelps. It’s kind of jaw-dropping, if you want to know the truth.Once the music itself gets your attention, then the stories he’s telling here will hold you. “This album was written over the winter months of 2015-2016 while I was in a major transition in my life” Adam says. “The reason this album came to life is because I truly dug deep and let my real feelings be expressed.” The depth of feeling here brings to mind Ray LaMontagne, particularly his God Willin’ And The Creek Don’t Rise record.I could listen to Moving Forward for the guitar playing alone and be thoroughly absorbed and entertained but thanks to the lyrics, this is the kind of disc to throw on when you’re in a mood to think about stuff. There are 9 originals and 3 covers here; Bob Seger’s Night Moves, Keb Mo’s City Boy and Warren Zevon’s Werewolves Of London, which he manages to make his own. This is definitely a contender for album of the year.
ESSENTIAL: On A Cold Grey Sky, Night Moves, Louis Collins
CIGAR STORE The Smoke Wagon Blues Band (Indie Pool) ***Cigar Store is your atypical good time blues album. If you use Downchild as a starting point to reference these guys, you’re on the right track- this is well played and fun.Formed in 1996 in Hamilton, The Smoke Wagon Blues Band has done six independent releases, received international radio play, with their last two albums being international hits… so they’re doing it right, and people are paying attention. This is a mix of down home and uptown blues to get you up, a mix of vocals, harp, guitar, organ, piano sax (the mayor of Hamilton has sat in with the band), drums and bass, all moving as one.As something of a manic depressive, my preferred blues is that dirty, lonesome stuff- but these tales of the Yukon, New Orleans, voodoo, the underground railroad, lost loves and even moonshine speak to me too. Some classic R&B grooves and stomping swamp boogie balance things out nicely, and there are some real barn burners here too.The Smoke Wagon Blues Band is full of extremely talented players, and Corey Lueck’s whiskey stained, soulful vocals gives him the authority songs like the slow burning Set Me Free demand. Cigar Store is a throwback, going back to a time when great chops and solid storytelling were all important- it’s a really cool place to visit.
ESSENTIALS: Set Me Free, Must’ve Read It Wrong, Hoodoo Woman
CLOWNS LOUNGE Enough Z’nuff (Frontiers) *** ½ Don’t call this Enuff Z’nuff’s new record- ‘latest release’ is more appropo. Clowns Lounge is a collection of rarities and early demos, partially re-worked by the band, including guest performances by James (JY) Young of Styx, and the late Jani Lane.This is one of my buddy Dean’s favourite bands and I can hear why. Big, chunky, melodic riffs, typical 80’s rock & roll for the most part, toe-tappin’ party songs. “We had unfinished, unreleased material in the vault, and I went back into the studio in Chicago and started working on all the songs” says bandleader Chip Z’nuff. “The record showcases the best elements of Enuff Z’nuff in the early days; in your face glitter rock with pop overtones.”Clowns Lounge includes performances by James Young and Jani Lane on The Devil Of Shakespeare, plus the vocal work of Donnie Vie, who left the band in 2013- partly because of disillusionment with the music business, and because of health issues. “He still shares our vision of putting out great music” says Chip. “As he is dealing with his medical condition, we have his blessings on the record and moving forward with me as lead singer.”For fans of the group, this is a treasure trove of never before heard stuff that must be added to the collection. If you’re asking “Who the fuck is Enuff Z’nuff?” they’re a band that traffics in catchy as hell riff rockers- deep and meaningless perhaps, but Clowns Lounge is the sound of a very good time… it comes out Dec.2nd.
ESSENTIALS: Dog On A Bone, Radio, The Devil Of Shakespeare