THE DEEP AND THE DIRTY Eric Johanson (Ruf Records) *****

Blues powered rock & roll is just about the best thing there is, and Brooklyn guitarist Eric Johanson offer a whole bunch with room to spare. The Deep And The Dirty, a title that refers to the American South, is jam-packed with hot, sweaty grooves ‘n’ vibes that capture your attention and imagination.  Blues/ rock?  I suppose… but more like blues with big, hairy balls.

Eric Johanson is a Louisiana native (like Buddy Guy) who grew up idolizing bluesmen like Freddie King and Robert Johnson.  The Deep And The Dirty was produced by Jesse Dayton (Supersuckers, Rob Zombie) and captures southern blues/ rock in a way that few records I’ve heard lately have.  Johnason is a fine singer and whether it’s riffs, solos or greasy slide I love the way he handles that guitar; with complete ease and authority.  The title track is the first single and there’s a video for it too.  Of the track Eric says “I relate it to the profound and the profane- the dichotomy of higher ideals and lower impulses.  The song deals with these concepts through the story of a southern traveler, in and out of town, living for the pleasures of the moment.”

TD & TD was recorded in just two days with bassist Eric Vogel and drummer Terence Higgins.  They laid down 12 tracks, lending the songs and performances an immediacy you just can’t get otherwise.  “When you’re playing this kind of music together, you create moments that can’t be replicated if you’re recording each part separately” Johanson explains.  “I don’t write my guitar solos beforehand or record them separately either. I need to interact with the band to take the solo somewhere special, so we need to record live.  Even if there’s a mistake or two, it feels like an honest representation of the moment.” A Neil Young approach you might say.

The Deep And The Dirty is both rock ‘n’ roll AND the blues, fueled by intuitive and engaging playing that you feel right down in your bones.  Deep? Dirty?  Oh HELL yeah!

HOT TRACKS:  Don’t Hold Back, Undertow, Borrowed Time

ROCK THE YACHT Rick & Jenda Derringer ROCK THE YACHT Rick & Jenda Derringer (Independent) *** 

This album is as surprising as it is cheesy; that title is a huge hint.  Rock The Yacht is 8 original tracks, the latest venture for this husband and wife team in a series of projects ranging from Beatles covers to inspirational music.  It’s well produced and well played, but for a guitarist who’s been where Derringer has been, I hoped for something a little gnarlier.

As a musical slut myself I shouldn’t be surprised that Rick & Jenda have chosen to drive down this road, but it certainly doesn’t compare to the other artists he’s played with as a session guy; Alice Cooper (Rick plays the solo on Under My Wheels), Kiss, Meat Loaf, Steely Dan, Johnny & Edgar Winter, the list goes on. RTY is smooth pop/rock, smooth as smooth can be, somewhere just north of Air Supply (yes, he’s played with them too), but this album is no joke.  His guitar playing is deft and inspiring, and the blended vocals of Rick and Jenda are pleasing to the ear and soul- I suspect that was the point all along.  The album reflects the earnest emotions of early 80’s pop music, an innocence that’s nigh on impossible to find nowadays.

Rock The Yacht is 8 original tracks written by the Derringers, with Alice Cooper and Bernie Taupin sharing credit for If I Weren’t So Romantic.  The production is rich and sophisticated and could give David Foster’s best work a run for the money, but then Rick is a world class producer in his own right too.  Within that there’s a variety of moods too, like the playful Hot And Cool,  the plaintive Winter, a bit of a flag waver in The United States and Good To Go, a testament to the couples’ love for each other. 

Rock The Yacht occupies ground between smooth jazz and early 80’s romantic pop.  Younger listeners might turn away but anyone between the ages of 50 and 70 will hear and appreciate this salute to a gentler, more romantic time loud and clear. Sum this up in one word?  Suave.

HOT TRACKS:  Hot & Cool, Good To Go, First Time

HOLD ON TO LOVE Shakura S’Aida (independent) *****+

Talk about a record with a timely message- Hold On To Love, Shakura S’Aida’s first album in a decade, is a dozen songs saying the kinds of things we all need to hear.  It’s also a record with soul and groove, on the same level as vintage Stevie Wonder.  This, kids, is the GREAT stuff.

Shakura S’Aida is a Brooklyn-born, Swiss-raised entertainer that calls Toronto home.  She is rightly celebrated as an international recording and touring artist, and as an actress too.  She was on Schitt’s Creek, played mother to Batwoman on the TV series of the same name, plus she was the star and creator of the four-woman tribute to Nina Simone.  As a co-producer on Hold On To Love alongside Donna Grantis (Prince/ 3rd Eye Girl), Keb’ Mo’ and Roger Costa (Jeff Healey), Shakura got exactly what she wanted and needed from her first record in 10 years.

Shakura S’Aida’s artistic work overall reflects that which impacts and connects us all, and that is especially so with Hold On To Love. As if her message wasn’t implicit in the title she says “I believe we all have a responsibility to look after each other.  I see, create and use music as a way to bring people together.”  Aside from having a rich, soulful voice, she has called together a ridiculously talented group of musicians that understand exactly what she is after at every turn.  Don Wilcox of American Blues Scene remarks that “Her arrangements on Hold On To Love bring to mind another great blues artist, Mavis Staples, who, like Shakura, has always defied conventions.  Both have a sophistication rare in the blues genre.”  He makes it sound like the kind of record you need to make room for, and he’s right.

Shakura really rocks out on a song like Complicated, and her sultry version of The Doobies’ classic Takin’ It To The Streets could turn out to be a peace anthem for our times.  Hold On To Love is a startling collection of songs with rare emotional depth that should be heard on every radio right across the country if not the world.  Calling this ‘excellent’ doesn’t do it justice.

HOT TRACKS:  Ain’t Got Nothin On Me, Takin’ It To The Streets, Complicated

EVERYBODY’S BUDDY Nic Clark (Little Village) *****

Well if this isn’t one of the friendliest records I’ve ever heard and that, of course, is reflected in the album title.  Everybody’s Buddy is Nic Clark’s sophomore album, a gathering of uplifting and honest songs to help you pass the time of day.  Produced by guitar legend Charlie Hunter this disc is full to the brim with deep in-the-pocket grooves, punchy pop touches and percussive vamps.  It’s also fine company.

Nic Clark has lived a hard life, battling an eating disorder since he was a kid. In his teens and 20’s he often weighed upward of 400 pounds, and it remains a daily struggle to keep a handle on it.  As a Mexican-American musician his life is quite similar to that of many Americans. “My experience is very common” he says. “I work an Amazon warehouse job and I’m really ashamed of it (but) as a working musician I need to make ends meet.  Take one shift at an Amazon warehouse and you’ll understand how everyone has the same problems as you.  People are in recovery, supporting multi-generation families, etcetera. I’m just so grateful that I have my music to keep me out of trouble.”

So now that we know what kind of guy Nic Clark is, let’s get to the music itself. Everybody’s Buddy is lyrically deep, rich and personal, spinning narratives that I daresay most of us can relate to directly or indirectly, with hard-earned life lessons behind them to pull something from if we’re smart.  Check this line from Flying Blind:  “you can’t keep from cutting, hurting yourself won’t stop all of this pain/ your life is worth something, all you need now is a little refrain” as he reaches out to a friend in need.  That’s something each of us should do much more of.  As for the vibe, blues-based Americana seems to fit; acoustic guitar and introspective melodies, gentle company that welcomes you in. “I know how terrible and sad life can be, and these songs are trying to get you out of those moments when everything (seems) hopeless” Nic observes.   

As someone who wanders into the darkness from time to time myself I can feel and appreciate what Everybody’s Buddy is trying to do, and I highly recommend for you too.

HOT TRACKS:  Try To Understand, Breathe Slow, Flying Blind

MAMMOTH II Mammoth WVH (BMG) *** ½

This is Wolfgang Van Halen’s follow-up to his 2021 debut.  Kudos to him for not following too closely in his father’s footsteps there, and here on Mammoth II.  Once again this is a one-man band affair with Wolf doing all the singing and playing under the guidance of producer Michael Baskette.  It feels like it’s cut from the same cloth, but it’s heavier too with a thick Creed-meets-Nickelback sound.

With a debut album and 2 years of touring under his belt, WVH went into his second record with more confidence in his singing and playing. “On the first album I was trying to figure out if I was a singer” he told Apple Music, “but for the past 2 years I have been a singer. I think you can hear that confidence in my guitar playing as well.”  People took that first album to be Wolfgang working through the loss of his dad but he says that’s not the case. “Everyone thinks the first album was me working through everything that had been happening, like losing my father” he notes, “but that’s not true.  I finished recording that album in 2018 (Eddie died Oct.6th, 2020)  This album (II) is where I’m working through everything that’s happened in my life since 2019, and that’s a lot.”  Yeah… losing his pop, his mom getting a divorce, him getting engaged… those sorts of things certainly have their effect.

Mammoth II is more aggressive and, thanks to the confidence from having a hit debut and doing serious roadwork, it’s more adventurous too.  If you’re waiting for Wolf to sound like the old man, don’t hold your breath… he’s a different guitar player, though he does indulge in some finger tapping on Erase Me and he uses Eddie’s rig (including the infamous Frankenstrat) to play the solo on Take A Bow.  The review in Ultimate Classic Rock calls II “a more radio-polished version of hard rock that was favored in the first part of the 2000’s” and that seems like a fair call.  They say you stay fond of the music you grew up on, and that’s the kind of stuff Wolfgang grew up on- and the kind of stuff old farts like me can dig.

Mammoth II is a step forward from that debut, but side by side they are still clearly related.  For Mammoth WVH’s career to have legs he’ll need to stretch and experiment more, but having said that I’m thoroughly enjoying the new album.

HOT TRACKS:  Erase Me, Take A Bow, Another Celebration At The End Of The World

WOODEN MUSIC Mick Kolassa (Endless Blues Music) ****

Another beautiful blues excursion here from Mick Kolassa. Wooden Music is the kind of record you’d expect, given the title, yet Kolassa and his cohorts have crafted an album as big an full as an electric blues disc.  Being acoustic doesn’t have to mean ‘sparse’- not that there’s anything wrong with that! Taking this path also dictated a sort of cool creativity, resulting in a warm and thoroughly engaging listen.

Instead of slowing down at this point Mick Kolassa has become more prolific, releasing 4 albums last year aloneincluding a Christmas record. Wooden Music refers to the sound, and there’s a relaxed swing to these numbers overall that’s real inviting.  The disc is 11 songs, 10 originals plus a cover of Guy Clark’s Baby Took A Limo To Memphis.  If you’re into Mick’s stuff (I have 11 of his cd’s) you’ll notice some of the musicians involved here have been involved in several of his previous discs.  Guests you might recognize include Tas Cru on guitar (Memphis Wood), Bob Corritore on harp (Sugar in Your Grits) and Doug MacLeod on guitar and slide guitar (Educated By the Blues, You Gotta Pay The Price).  Harmonic player Eric Hughes is the only musician involved who’s played on every one of Mick’s records- except Mick, of course!  These cats obviously know each other well as there’s the sort of comfort in playing music with each other that only comes from experience.

For Wooden Music Kolassa is joined again by Jeff Jensen as principal guitarist and producer.  The rhythm section is Carl Casperson and Tom Lonardo who also powered last year’s They Call Me Uncle Mick.   In creating this album Mick was intent on crafting the songs not just playing them, and that effort is readily apparent as you listen.  With the superb musicianship and production here the word I would use to sum up Wooden Music is ‘jaunty’.  Mick Kolassa makes good records, but this is the best thing he’s done in quite some time.

HOT TRACKS:  One Hit Wonder, Hurt People, Baby Took A Limo To Memphis 

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