Rock Doc Music Reviews for Feb 10th

“THE DEVIL YOU KNOW” Tommy Castro & The Painkillers (Alligator)  ****+Another hard driving set from one of my favorite Alligator artists, a turbo charged combo of blues, rock and soul.  It’s the first studio set to feature Castro’s stripped down backing band The Painkillers- mixing 9 originals and 4 covers, I can picture this disc filling the dance floor anywhere on any given Saturday night.A two time winner of the Blues Music Award’s “Entertainer Of The Year”, this 4 man formation really tears it up.  Rightly praised by Billboard Magazine (the broadcast & music industry bible) as “Irresistible contemporary blues/rock (with) street level grit and soul”, it’s quite muscular. “I’m always moving forward, going outside of my wheelhouse, listening to new music and incorporating new ideas” Tommy says.  “For the new album I challenged myself to add different sounds and new rhythms to my style while remaining true to my roots.”After playing guitar driven blues and R&B for years backed by a tight horn section, in 2012 Castro shifted to the tight 4 piece format that is The Painkillers.  “(They) really got me back to my roots” he notes.  “It feels more like it did when I first started playing with my friends as a kid- bands were always just 3 or 4 guys playing for the fun of it.”  That renewal of energy is palpable in each cut on this album.  If you’re fan of Stevie Ray Vaughan’s hard edged style and the way his band really leans into it, Tommy Castro & The Painkillers are playing your song.As for the band’s name, Tommy says “A lot of folks are having a hard time these days, and they need something to lift them up and make them smile.  Our music kills the pain.”  T he Devil You Know is a great album- go out and buy it if you haven’t already.COOL CUTS:  I’m Tired, title track, When I Cross The MississippiSMOKIN’ BLUES Mark T Small (independent) ***Get ready for an intimate experience.  Taking a cue from guys like John Lee Hooker and Son House who could blow the roof off the joint all by themselves,  Mark has left the full band set up of his former years in favor of just voice and acoustic guitar.  His goal is to develop a solo act that is as hard hitting as a band, but all in a one man show.  He says he’s a live player and not a studio guy- so this record, other than the ‘radio tone’ on John Lee Hooker’s My Daddy Was A Jockey, and some reverb to simulate listening in a small room, Smokin’ Blues is as natch’l as it gets.Right off the top this reminds me of one of my favorite David Gogo albums, Bare Bones. This one makes you feel like you’re in some seedy juke joint, drinking cheap whiskey while some guy in the corner, dressed far too nicely for a dump like this, is squeezing tunes out of an acoustic guitar.  Smokin’ features several different guitar styles and techniques, and Small plays it like he’s in a club. “I always watch to see who is tapping their feet in the back of the room, paying close attention to which grooves get people moving.”  Of course, being a fine guitar player doesn’t hurt either.This kind of music is the sort of thing that sounds best on a Friday or Saturday night, with the work week behind you (especially a shitty one like I just had) and a few ounces of liquor burning a hole in your belly. Smokin’ Blues won’t be an every weekend kind of thing for me, but no doubt that there will be times when it feels awful damned good.COOL CUT:  My Daddy Was A Jockey, Moanin’ At Midnight, Stone Pony BluesLIVE AT THE CELLAR DOOR Neil Young (Reprise) ****Out since Dec.10th, this is the latest release from Young’s ‘Archive’ series.  Recorded at the famous venue between November 30th and December 2nd 1970 just after the release of his classic After The Gold Rush album this, for Young fans, is buried treasure.Cellar Door features early, raw performances of songs that would appear on future records, plus nuggets like Cinnamon Girl performed on piano and guitar, and the rarity Bad Fog Of Loneliness, surely worth the price of admission alone to fans.  This is the 15h album in my own Neil Young collection, so as fans go I guess that puts me somewhere in the lower-middle.  I don’t like everything he’s done- can’t stand some of it- but one of the things I like best about Neil is that he does whatever the hell he wants to- and that’s rare.Cellar Door doesn’t read like a greatest hits set but it’s close enough, with songs like those already mentioned and Down By The River, Only Love Can Break Your Heart and Old Man. The magic here is in the intimacy of the performances- it’s Neil Young solo, switching off from acoustic guitar to piano, bringing us as far into the songs as most of us are ever likely to go.  If you’re not already a fan, keep moving- it won’t change your mind.  But if you like his acoustic records- even mid-period stuff like Harvest Moon and Prairie Wind- you’ll love this.COOL CUTS: After The Gold Rush, Old Man, Cinnamon Girl, Bad Fog Of Loneliness  GUITAR ANGELS James Armstrong (New Catfood) *****A surprising disc from an artist I’ve never heard from before.  Smooth and soulful as it may be, Guitar Angels is a refreshing brace of the blues.  This is one of those albums I’ll be listening to again and again.Armstrong disarms listeners right off the top with the delightful Grandma’s Got A New Friend, about how baby boomers’ approach to aging differs from previous generations.  The playing is silky, expert, flawless and, with horn section, kinda uptown. James’ approach to the blues and song writing (9 of these 11 songs are originals) comes from a contemporary place and yet keeps the music relevant without forsaking its roots.To describe the overall feel of this album, “laid back” fits best.  The title track has been in Armstrong’s head for about a decade. In 1996 he was the victim of a horrible home invasion attack that left him without the use of his left hand and arm, including permanent nerve damage.  Thanks to a lot of hard physical rehabilitation and the support of friends, he was able to make music again. Of the title song he says “Many guitar players, alive and dead, have helped me.  I am still unable to bend the third finger on my left hand, or use my little finger, but I attribute some of the reason I’m actually able to play the guitar again to my ‘guitar angels.”  He actually name checks them in the tune too- his dad, Mike Ross, Coco Montoya and Joe Louis Walker.  Had I not read of this in the supplied bio, I would have had no idea.I love James’ playing on this disc and the supple, soulful vibe that governs the music.  He’s a fine singer, his soloing is like a great backrub, and this is one of the best albums you’re likely to hear this year.  It hits store shelves February 18th, and it will be heard on my blues show in the very near future.COOL CUTS:  Goodbye Kiss, Grandma’s Got A New Friend, Take It To The Limit (yep, the Eagles song), Moving To NashvilleSUGAR BROWN’S SAD DAY featuring Bharath Rajakumar and Ben Caissie (independent) ***It’s not every day you run across a Japanese/ Korean bluesman, but that’s what we have with Sugar Brown.  Born in Ohio as Ken Chester Kawashima and now residing in Toronto, he won the 2013 Toronto Blues Society Talent Search with his vintage-style blues.Each of these tracks were recorded live off the floor onto full track mono tape for an old school early 50’s Chess Records sound- and therein lies the rub for me.  I like this album quite a bit, but would have liked it more had Sugar Brown availed himself of modern studio techniques for a clean, crisp sound.  I know his aim, and that of producer/ harmonica player Bharath Rajakumar was for the vintage sound but it is now 2014, not 1954.  Everything sounds kind of murky and, at times overdriven- but then, I could be whining because it’s so friggin’ cold outside today!The title of this record and indeed a handful of the songs refer to the recent death of Sugar Brown’s father.  For all my quibbles with the sonics here the songs are deeply personal and moving, and his mixture of early 50’s Texas country rawness, early electric Chicago blues and Northern Mississippi sounds are strangely compelling.Some solid blues here and worth checking out, particularly if you’re into a vintage vibe.COOL CUTS:   Grim Reaper, Stockyard Blues, Act Like You Love MeMAKING MY MARK Annika Chambers & The Houston All Stars (Montrose Record) ****God I love this woman’s voice!  Ms. Chambers’ fiery blend of blues, R&B and soul, just this side of Shemekia Copeland, goes down like a great tequila that leaves you feeling warm inside.Annika’s story; after rising to the rank of Sergeant during an 8 year hitch in the US Army, including two deployments to Iraq and Kosovo, she went on to pursue a career in music and is less than one semester away from earning a bachelor’s degree in communications from the university of Houston.  Impressive, but can she sing?  Yes- and how!From the lowdown blues of Jealous Kind  to the up-tempo opening track (Move) she doesn’t stand still for long, but neither does she wander too far from home.  Behind her in the studio is a band loaded with Grammy nominations and wins, so this isn’t a bush league vanity production.  Annika had had a hand in writing many of these songs, plus there are some by Dominique Fulcher, plus stuff by Steve Cropper and BB King.I suppose these tunes cover familiar territory when it comes to this sort of music, but this is a well played, great sounding album, and what you take from songs like Lick- ‘ER (I got what jack ain’t got/ I wanna be your liquor)and Barnyard Blues is entirely up to you. Making My Mark just feels really, really good.COOL CUTS:  Jealous Kind, Guitar Boy, Lick ‘ErRATTLESNAKE CAGE Steve Dawson (Black Hen Music) *****I’m not usually one to be entranced by entire albums of instrumental music, let alone entire albums of instrumental solo acoustic guitar music, but this one left my jaw on the floor.  Like the best of Bruce Cockburn’s instrumental stuff, Steve Dawson- winner of 7 Juno awards as an artist and producer- has no trouble telling stories without using words.This really is just Dawson and his guitar with no overdubs, but his fingerpicking and fine slide style are mesmerizing.  This record is simple and unadorned, not unlike John Fahey, Peter Lang and Leo Kottke from the 60’s.  Rattlesnake Cage was recorded with a single vintage tube microphone that had recently been rescued from decades of hanging from the ceiling rafters of an old theatre in Detroit.  You can hear every detail and nuance of each note, as if Dawson were sitting right in front of you, in the room, playing away.  The effect of hearing a recording this open and pure is nothing short of astounding.Steve’s playing is fluid and disciplined, nothing short of marvelous.  If you enjoy well played acoustic guitar with the possible exception of new Zealand’s Graham Wardrop, it really doesn’t get any better than this.COOL CUTS:  Rattlesnake Cage, Blind Thomas At The Crime Scene, The Altar At Center RavenAUSTIN WIRED Brian Cober (independent) *** 1/2This is more rockabilly than blues but if you enjoy slide guitar, Brian Cober’s new album is well worth checking out.This guy knows his way around an axe- he’s played with Bo Diddley, King Biscuit Boy, Long John Baldry Jeff Healey and Eugene Smith, plus he’s also opened for Johnny Winter, James Cotton, Blue Rodeo, John Mayall and Roy Buchanan to mention a few.  I guess more than rockabilly this is roadhouse blues, the sort of music that makes you want to get up and move, especially with a bellyful of cheap draught beer.Brian is an okay singer- not great, but passable.  He’s a assembled a great band behind him though in ‘Big Ben Richardson on bass, and Tom Lewis on drums.  This disc was recorded, of course, in Austin Texas over the course of two sessions- not much fussing over the details, just getting into the room and rockin’ out. Jazz MusicNews rightly praises Cober as “the best friend the slide guitar ever had” and the Kitchener Waterloo Record calls him “Canada’s best slide guitarist”,  his style somewhere between Bonnie Raitt and Johnny Winter- closer to Johnny, I’d say.The blues in the hands of Brian Cober and his band are energetic and compelling, from the freight train-like attack on Robert Johnson’s Preachin’ The Blues to the Latin tinged instrumental Nuestro Viento and everything in between… definitely a Friday night album!COOL CUTS:  Preachin’ The Blues, I Got A Thing, I’m A Bluesman BabyBAPTIZED BY THE MUD Kat Danser (Outside) *****This one has been sitting at the bottom of an extremely disorganized desk drawer for far too long, and for that I apologize.  Released back in October, the latest from Edmonton’s queen of the swamp blues knocks it right out of the park and I don’t think it’s ever gonna come down.Mud is a righteous blend of gospel and blues with that ever present swamp vibe- a New Orleans thing really, the kind of music where you sense all kinds of interesting things hiding in the dark corners.  The disc is collaboration with guitarist/ producer Steve Dawson, whose latest album is also reviewed in this column.  Danser effortlessly mixes her own stuff with well and lesser known gospel songs for a potent mix of roots, blues and spiritual music.  As a singer, songwriter and guitarist in her own right, this collaboration with Dawson is simply mesmerizing.I could be downstairs watching the Olympics right now, but Baptized By The Mud has me in its spell and I must listen to it at least one more time before moving on to other things.  This has the vibe of a straight up blues album by Robbie Robertson, if he were to ever attempt such a thing- rich, full, haunting and inspirational all at the same time.  I love this record!COOL CUTS:  title track, None of Us Are Free, Prove It On Me BluesFULL CIRCLE John Zipperer (Ziptunes)  ** 1/2This isn’t full on country, but country blood surely flows through its veins. The opening cut sounds like it would have been at home on a Jimmy Buffett album, but the underlying sadness of most of these songs is straight up country. Full Circle is about come to grips with the hand you’ve been dealt, and having the nards to start all over again.I guess country/ folk might work as well as any label for this collection of tunes, except perhaps a terrific ballad version of Van Morrison’s Brown Eyed Girl.  “This recording is a reflection of the love I lost due to my own failings” he says.  “It’s a look back at a wonderful girl whom I hurt through the blindness and stupidity of my youth.  It’s always struck me how sad the lyric sounded- I hope Van hears it and likes it.”Full Circle‘s is well played and there’s something about John’s voice that reminds me just a wee bit of Cat Stevens or even America, and I like the stylistic variety- from that aforementioned opening song Sailing Away to the jaunty acoustic jazz feel of Here By Me.  It’s a light and feathery sound, unobtrusive and pleasant background music.  Perhaps after several more spins I may feel differently, but one is all I can afford today and that’s how it feels.  Pleasant and warm yes, but deep and life changing?  Not today.COOL CUTS:  Sailing Away, Brown Eyed GirlDAUNIELLE Dauinielle (Cat Food)  **** +Backed by the marvelous Cat Food records house band and produced by the Grammy award winning Jim Gaines, this is Daunielle’s solo debut and she knocks it out of the park.  This chick is indeed a force of nature top be reckoned with.Memphis born and raised, she comes by her musical pedigree quite naturally- her father, William brown, was an original member of the Stax/ Volt vocal group The Mad Lads.  There’s a richness , depth and soul to her voice- passion without histrionics, a quiet confidence that says ‘the way I’m layin’ it down is exactly the way it is’.  From a terrific cover of Higher And Higher to the song Early Grave, which comments on musicians who have died before their time, I feel a touch of voodoo in these grooves too.There is heartbreak, sadness and hard won joy scattered throughout these ten tracks- in other words, a lot of life.  “A lot of the songs on my album are a reflection on my life, even the ones I didn’t write” Daunielle observes, which explains why I can’t detect a false note among them.  I Got A Voice is about her adopted daughter Starr’s (she was born medically challenged)struggle to have her voice heard.Listening to Daunielle’s self title debut gives you the feeling that you know her in ways that count.  Too bad she’s only touring in the south and the Memphis area- what a treat it would be to see her onstage.COOL CUTS:  Early Grave, Higher and Higher, Damn Your Eyes IN THE DETAILS Irene Torres & The Sugar Devils (independent) *****This swanky new release is cause for celebration.  Awarded the 2012 Toronto Blues Society Talent Search Award shortly after their first e.p. was released, Details is the group’s first full length release and it’s a delight. It was a love of roots music from all over the world that brought Irene Torres & The Sugar Devils together in 2011, and the backbone of their sound is drawn from the inspiration of artists like Koko Taylor, The Meters, Bonnie Raitt, Jon Cleary and The Absolute Monster Gentlemen, as well as Sharon Jones and The Dap Kings.  Though I’m familiar with about half that list I can say with certainly that it all comes out through this band in a joyous, swinging and playful way. The Peruvian born Torres sings with gusto and urgency as the band (drummer Drew Austin, bassist/ guitarist Josh “Yoshi” Piche- my advance copy doesn’t reveal who plays keyboards) provides the moodscapes for her to work on.  From the gusto of the opening track What Can Your Love Do? to a smoky, sexy, bluesy downer ballad like Set Me Free– at least before Austin kicks it into gear at about the 3 minute mark) Details never stays in one groove for too long. So what kind of music is this?  You can’t really call it straight up blues, though the soulful keyboard work throughout would suggest that.  There’s rock & roll, roots and jazz music mixed in here too to varying degrees, giving it the swanky feel referenced in the first paragraph.  In The Details is, for me at least, the first truly great album of 2014. COOL CUTS:  My Momma Said, Set me Free, What Can Your Love Do, Puff

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