THE LAST SHADE OF BLUE BEFORE BLACK The Original Blues Brothers Band (Severn Records) *****
I can be forgiven for approaching this disc with a healthy amount of skepticism, expecting a half-assed effort designed to cash in on a barely still famous name… but The Last Shade Of Blue Before Black is a wonderfully muscular, exciting musical adventure that mixes classic blues with some originals for a robust set of tunes.
Didn’t have room for this in the title line, but this disc is actually by “Steve Cropper, Lou Marini and The Original Blues Brothers Band with Eddie Floyd, Joe Louis Walker, Paul Shaffer, Dr. John, Matt Murphy, Joe Morton”. BBB sounds and feels as good as you’d dare hope and then some. Mixing blues and funk, these songs keep The Blues Brothers spirit alive without feeling like its cashing in on Jake & Elwood’s legacy. Produced by Cropper, Marini and The Blues Brothers Band the sound is tight and lively, powered by some seriously excellent musicianship.
Bottom line, The Last Shade Of Blue Before Black is the sound of a group of incredibly talented musicians having a blast, laying these tracks down on tape without thought of commercial success (is there such a thing anymore?) but rather because they’re simply too good not to share. If you’re a fan of this kind of music you’ll already be familiar with tunes like I Got My Mojo Working and James Brown’s Sex Machine, but I’ll wager you haven’t heard them played with this kind of vigor and precision.
As well known as The Blues Brothers are, maybe attaching that name to this project may also be a bit of a commercial hindrance in an “oh not this again” kind of way, but if you can approach BBB with an open mind I promise you will be richly rewarded. Great music and passionate playing always make sticking around worthwhile, and this set is about as uplifting and enjoyable as it gets.
KEY CUTS: Baby What You Want Me To Do, Sex Machine, Blues In My Feet
… TO THE EDGE 61 Ghosts (Bluzpik) *** ½
Though there is some blues in the coloring, the best way to describe this new 6 song e.p. from 61 Ghosts is, as the band calls it, “primal rock & roll.” Sounding a bit like a cross between Springsteen and Nashville Pussy, …To The Edge is as raw and honest as it gets.
61 Ghosts are Joe Mazzari on vocals and guitar, Dixie on drums, and J.D. Sipe on bass. Joe’s gutter rock guitar and gritty vocals are definitely the focal point. This is a guy who spent years on the road and recording with people like Johnny Thunders (NY Dolls) and Jerry Nolan. His influences include John Hiatt, Bob Dylan, Link Wray, Rory Gallagher and the Mississippi blues. Together with a gal known only as ‘Dixie’ on drums they mix steamy grooves, razor sharp dynamics and energy in a mix that may make some people uncomfortable.
Lester Thompson, music critic for The San Francisco Review , says “61 Ghosts is like being dragged behind an old Harley through the Americana Badlands”, and that description is surprisingly accurate. Hard and deep but with a kind Stones swagger and sloppiness, …To The Edge is real dirt-under-your-fingernails rock & roll. Crank it.
KEY CUTS: No One At Your Door, If Tears Were Dirt
BLUES AND BOOGIE VOL. 1 Kim Wilson (Severn) *****
From his work with The Fabulous Thunderbirds to his solo stuff to the record he did with Mud Morganfield (son of Muddy Waters), I’ve always loved and appreciated Kim Wilson’s work and his grasp on the blues. In the liner notes he says that he’s been recording many, many tracks for as couple of years now, and that Vol.1 is “the first of many to come”. If you can get into old fashioned, off the cuff blues, Blues & Boogie Vol.1 is singing your songs.
The best way to describe this set is ‘old-school blues’, from the tunes themselves to Kim Wilson’s production style here, to the musicianship. When asked in an interview for the blues.gr website, about how the legacy of the old stuff connects with the new generation, Kim says “Everything is connected to the beginnings of the music in one way or another. It’s just a matter of how much it’s bastardized.” Perhaps it’s this sense and feeling of tradition that connects so deeply with fans of the genre- I know I can feel it.
Blues And Boogie Vol. 1 has that sense of history, as it combines Kim Wilson originals alongside songs by many of Kim’s influences like Little Walter, Sonny Boy Williamson, James Cotton (to whom this disc is dedicated) and more. All of these tracks have a loose, swinging feel- as Wilson says in the liner notes, “This kind of music is very easy and pleasurable for me to perform. I like to surround myself with musicians who ‘fly by the seat of their pants’.” When Kim Wilson blows harp he’s winging it; “Every time I pick up my instrument it’s an experiment because it’s totally improvised” he says. “What I want is a large musical vocabulary- it has to be as comfortable as breathing.”
So, yeah… Blues And Boogie Vol. 1 is very much a traditional blues album, by a man who lives, breathes and loves the blues, along with a long list of willing co-conspirators. This doesn’t come out until October 20th, and I’m already looking forward to Vol.2!
KEY CUTS: No Love In My Heart, Sho Nuff I Do, Worried Life Blues
TIRED OF THE SAME OLD RUT? PLAY THIS Mike “Mudfoot” McDonald (independent) *** ½
Though he’s delighted audiences for over 4 decades, Play This is Mike McDonald’s (no, not The Doobie Brothers guy) solo debut. He used to run the Sunday Night Jams at Toronto’s famous Grossman’s Tavern, has shared stages with BB King, Three Dog Night, James Cotton and Steppenwolf, and has been playing the role of John Fogerty in the CCR tribute band Bayou Boys, so he is mostly definitely worth a few spins.
As blues records go, Tired Of The Same Old Rut is a pretty uplifting experience. The sound has some meat on its bones and there’s some great playing while none of the musicians try to get too fancy or pretty; this kind of music simply doesn’t not call for that approach. Mike has a wonderfully raspy vocal, well suited for the blues and for the CCR tribute band he also plays in, as evidenced by his cover of Put A Spell On You. His guitar playing also feels a bit like Albert Collins, and that’s pretty cool. This is one of those blues albums that’s going to make you feel good.
Most of these songs were written by McDonald, with the exception of Put A Spell On You (of course), plus Whistle Blowin’ and Lean On Me Mama were co-writes. Some of the songs, like both versions of the title track, have a bit of a country blues feel, while others are a little more down in the mud- just where I like ‘em. There are a couple of instrumentals worth noting here too; Valerie and Slide… if I’m ever lucky enough to get another blues show on the radio, I’d like to use them as theme music.
Not sure what else there is to be said about Tired Of The Same Old Rut? Play This other than throw it on- I think you’ll really like it. Cool booklet too, with background on each of the songs, to help you enjoy them all the more.
KEY CUTS: Hock’s Groovin’ Bar Café, Slide, Whistle Blowin’
BETTER LATE THAN NO TIME SOON Leonard Griffie (Pango Boy) ****
Guitar driven blues- that’s my thing, and this new record by Leonard Griffie is speaking my language. Throw some old school R&B with a cup of soul and a dash of jazz into a pot with a base of blues, and you’ve got Better Late Than No Time Soon.
Griffie has a wonderful voice for singing the blues- gravelly and lived in, not unlike Muddy Waters, giving these tracks some weight and believability. Love his guitar playing style too; kind of casual yet precise, and lyrical- almost like another voice singing parts of these songs, a combination of blues and jazz styles. He has a pretty excellent band behind him too- I won’t rattle off a bunch of names you won’t likely recognize, but this one of the most in-the-pocket sets you’ve likely heard in some time, playing with a kind of swing that will have you up and moving before you realize what’s going on.
Better Late Than No Time Soon manages a trick that many albums aspire to yet fail to fully achieve; it manages to be both fresh yet simultaneously traditional in its blues expression. Produced by Leonard himself, BLTNTS boasts a balanced, earthy sound that serves the songs rather well, in a BB King sort of way. 14 cuts in all, 13 of which were written by Griffie with the exception of I Got News, which was a co-write. The more I listen the more Leonard’s guitar playing draws me in, even moreso than his singing. It’s articulate and very expressive without being showy, with a vibrato that brings just the right amount of emotion without overdoing it.
Better Late Than No Time Soon comes out of the gate as a solid album, and it just gets better every spin. VERY cool.
KEY CUTS: I Got News, You Done Stepped In It Now, I’m Good Where I Am
SONGS FROM THE ROAD Layla Zoe (Ruf) ****+
The latest installment in Ruf’s outstanding Songs From The Road series a CD/DVD live album from Victoria’s Layla Zoe. Recorded at a German club and packed with muscle-bound blues and rock & roll firepower. As a singer, Zoe digs deep and out-and-out wails.
When Zoe released last year’s Breaking Free (her 10th album) it flattened me, landing on my ‘best of 2016’ list with ease… but to hear her in her natural habitat, on stage, is doubly powerful. “For me, there is nothing as satisfying as being on stage with my band, giving my heart and soul to the fans through music” Layla says. “I like to write songs, I enjoy being in the studio, but the live shows are the reason I love my job so much.”
Layla Zoe is a powerful, passionate vocalist, bringing Dana Fuchs to mind, or perhaps a modern Joplin. While she is the focal point here, you gotta give props to her band; Jan Laacks mesmerizes on guitar, while bassist Christoph Hubner and drummer Claus Schulte provide a seismic foundation on which Zoe and Laacks can work their magic. As I am fairly guitar-centric when it comes to the blues, his playing is of particular interest; ferocious and exacting, but you never get the feeling he’s overplaying… he gives the songs just what they need, perhaps pushing the boundaries just a smidge, but never showing off for its own sake.
Songs From The Road is thick and hard, produced with an exciting rock & roll edge. Within that framework you’ll find lots of textures- from the Hendrixian ballad Why Do We Hurt The Ones We Love and the actual Hendrix tune The Wind Cries Mary to stuff like Backstage Queen or my favorite, Highway Of Tears, which brings down the house. The DVD features a couple of different tracks and slightly different running order, but it’s all good- all very, very powerful.
In an era of choreographed stage moves and auto-tuned vocals Layla Zoe is the real deal, and on Songs From The Road she and her band leave it all on the stage. This is one of the best live albums I’ve ever heard, and I mean EVER.
KEY CUTS: A Good Man, Why Do We Hurt the Ones We Love, Highway Of Tears