THANKS Bob Margolin (VizzTone) **** ½
Muddy Waters’ former guitarist is back with his most satisfying album in years. Thanks is a one-man show as Bob celebrates 50 years since joining Muddy’s band. Using the same Gibson archtop electric guitar he played back in the day, Margolin created every sound on this album, except for an excited bark by his dog Levon during the solo on No Consolation. Having 4 of his own tunes plus an inspired choice of covers helps make this an exceptional album.
Thanks is not a ‘band’ album, it’s Margolin on guitars and vocals and some basic percussion that sounds like his right foot. He also tracked, mixed, mastered and produced the record, making it a labor of love. Blues fans will recognize some of the songs, perhaps even finding something new in these fresh and stripped down arrangements. Though it’s not considered a blues number, The Band’s The Shape I’m In fits snugly with tunes like Willie Dixon’s Who (first done by Little Walter) and Jimmy Rogers’ Hard Working Man. Thanks to the construction of the record there’s a warmth and intimacy that Bob has attempted and yet not quite achieved before.
Over the course of his life in the blues, Bob Margolin has come across and has worked with many legends, a half dozen of them represented on Thanks. He also plays 4 of his own numbers here, rearranging them to be played on that Gibson archtop; old songs, old guitar, new fire. There’s something about combining Bob’s spirit with that of this particular guitar that elevates the music to new levels. Aside from tunes by Willie Dixon, Jimmy Rogers and The Band already mentioned, Margolin also touches on Paul Gayten & Pinetop Perkins.
Thanks is an album that’s chill, intimate and exciting all at the same time- you’ll have to give it a listen to hear what I’m talking about. I think Bob sums it up best on his own website when he says “(I’m celebrating) 50 years since Muddy Waters took me in his band and all that came from that Crossroads” he says. “With this album I thank Muddy, a certain special guitar, and the wonderful musicians who blessed me with their music and friendship.” It’s not a stretch to call Thanks blues magic.
HOT TRACKS: Who, Baby Can’t Be Found, Just Before Dawn
UP NEXT Mathias Lattin (VizzTone) *****
Holy funk ‘n’ blues, Batman! Up Next, Lattin’s debut for VizzTone, is a beautifully built record where blues, funk and soul mingle freely. A Tasty guitar player with a smooth singing voice that recalls Robert Cray, Mathias Lattin has hit it wayyy out of the park.
Lattin won first place at the 2023 International Blues Challenge in the band category and the Best Guitarist Award at just 20 years old. He came up on the Houston blues scene and Up Next is solid proof he paid attention to every detail along the way. His training as a jazz guitarist serves him well here as evidenced by his soulful blues playing and jazz inflected chords and some righteously funky basslines. As a songwriter Mathias is also well beyond his years as the influence of some of his favorite writers in Marvin Gaye, Bobby Womack, Lucky Peterson and Roy Hawkins play out. Man, this kid just has it DOWN.
Up Next doesn’t shy away from typical blues tropes like the song You Don’t Love Me No More but the first single, Lose Some Weight, is a driving funky blues with a twist as he plans to lose weight by kissing his girl goodbye. As much as I love elemental blues there’s also something to be said for this music being played with jazz chops… throw in a pop sense of melody (check out I Tried So Hard) and you’ve got something to be excited about. Lattin’s guitar playing and songwriting are the real drawing cards here but the other musicians also put in fine performances, with organ players Shawn Allen and Andrew Douglas really bluesing things up.
On first thought it seems mind-boggling that a 20 year old like Mathias Lattin can write and play with the level of confidence on display here, but he’s just doing what comes naturally. Up Next is 10 songs that show this, including a live take on Lose Some Weight that, as much as I like the single version, buries it. Mathias Lattin is absolutely the real deal.
HOT TRACKS: Lose Some Weight (live), You Know This Won’t Do, 2nd Degree
LIVE AT THE SHAMROCK Dustin Arbuckle & The Damnations (bandcamp) *****
The best thing about live albums is how they capture a moment in time. Live At The Shamrock, recorded at the legendary Wichita venue, is Dustin & Co in peak form taking the audience on a roots/rock joyride that casts a wide although blues-based net with a real American sound. When you hear the album you’ll get just what that means.
“On the right night, if we’re in the right headspace, and we’re getting that energy from the crowd, it can get very special” Arbuckle says. “If we’re all dialed in, we can get into a free flowing vibe” and that feels like the case on Shamrock. The audience noise is almost non-existent in order to place emphasis on the music itself, and the playing is sublime and extremely groovy. Dustin’s smooth vocals and blustery harmonica playing add a lot of spirit to these tunes.
Live At The Shamrock is a worthy tribute to this establishment. “The Sham is the oldest still operating bar in Wichita, it’s been open since 1932” Dustin observes. “It’s been a consistent and very supportive home for live music- original music- from pretty much every genre. It’s been a key venue in our time as a band and in our hometown.” The disc is a mix of original songs and covers of songs by people they know. “We’re lucky to have become close with a lot of great songwriters” Arbuckle notes. “Pretty much all of our covers are songs by friends of ours.”
Live At The Shamrock is raucous, upbeat and well played. The musicians- Dustin (lead vocals, harmonic), Brandon Hudspeth (guitar), Caleb Drummond (bass, harmony vocals), Kendall Newby (drums, harmony vocals)- captured lightning in a bottle on these 3 nights. The album rocks, hard-charging blues numbers with some twang to elevate any weekend into an epic throw-down that just might involve the cops- so be careful who you invite over to your place.
HOT TRACKS: Tombstone Blues, Sioux City Strut, You’re Gonna Hear Me On The Radio
RIDER Guy Forsyth (Small & Nimble Records) *** ½
Here is a new EP from this Austin-based singer/ songwriter. Rider is just 4 songs that fuse multiple styles, moving quickly from up-tempo rock to soulful blues in just 17 minutes that reminds me of The Hard Way-era Steve Earle, the lyrics loaded with emotional violence.
Forsyth is a multi-instrumentalist, joined here by longtime producer/ collaborator Mark Addison, along with John Chipman on drums and Colin Brooks on pedal steel. Rider is a brief encounter but Guy gets a lot done. Get Up reveals how he formed his lifelong love of music, but Rolling Blackout Blues is a soulful look at the death of a friend from hypothermia during Austin’s big freeze of 2021. There’s a bunch of life in these 4 songs.
Rider has a country feel, thanks in part to Collin Brooks’s pedal steel playing but it’s also fair, I think, to call it blues too; musically and certainly emotionally. I wish the production was a little cleaner but this is still a decent listen. I like the way Guy Forsyth writes, and that makes me curious about his previous work too- just as an EP should.
HOT TRACKS: Rolling Blackout Blues, Get Up
THE PRESENTATION OF SELF IN EVERYDAY LIFE Stephen Clair (independent) *****
You gotta admire someone that has a different view; sort of left field, but not in a “what-the-hell-is-he-talking-about” sort of way. Stephen Clair is one of those people and his new album, The Presentation Of Self In Everyday Life is a jewel. It’s just his voice and his acoustic guitar, save for the rickety piano on the opening cut Pizza and Fairy Tales. It feels like he’s taking us into his confidence as he observes the world around him in his own unique way.
Presentation is the very definition of a solo record. “Every note, every part- including the air around it- is intentional” Clair says. “I recorded it alone, in a room, over months, guitar in my lap, mousing with one hand, groping through the microphones surrounding me. I recorded take after take of each song. What you hear are intact performances of each song. No punching in, no edits, no cutting and pasting. Each track on the record is a complete performance.”
You’ll notice too that Stephen uses repetition as another device to reinforce a point, particularly on the opening cut and Watering The Flowers as the narrator incessantly waters the flowers as they wait and wonder, attempting to keep their shit together. Presentation is a lyrically unusual record, but then the same can be said of his other albums like The Small Hours and To The Trees. Stephen Clair is a fine guitar player and his gently picked acoustic melodies are soothing. Perhaps that’s part of his plan, intentional or not; the relaxing yet engaging musicality leaving you more open to what he has to say more than a gaggle of electric barre chords ever could.
Paste Magazine said it best when they observed “Clair’s lyrics are everyman poetry with a dash of self-deprecation and gallows humor to go with his otherwise uncluttered views of the world around and within him.” Presentation might not reach everybody but those who get it will fall helplessly in love… this is a wonderful album.
HOT TRACKS: I Imagined I Was An Elevator, Watering The Flowers, Bubble Bath
REPEAT OFFENDER Jim Mitchell (Mother West) ****
This is the 4th album for outlaw country survivor Jim Mitchell. Repeat Offender distills decades of hard knocks of every sort for a personal record that sidesteps the glut of sanitized bro country that crowds today’s radio playlists.
“I want to remain who I am, which is something based on tradition” Jim says. “I know what country music is- I’m schooled in it”, which is spelled out very clearly in Just Like Old Hank. I find his attitude and others like him- such as David Adam Byrnes, reviewed a couple of weeks ago- refreshing. Repeat Offender isn’t faux country, it’s the real deal. This ain’t Shania Twain-type stuff- don’t get me wrong, I like her music too- but it really doesn’t get any more country than this as I can imagine Waylon Jennings or Johnny singing these songs.
Jim Mitchell is the son of an itinerant musician, honing his talents in hobo jungles just like his dad, finding himself playing for drifters whenever his father passed through town. “Dad was kinda like a 60’s and 70’s Woody Guthrie, without the politics” Mitchell notes. “By 12 years old I was allowed to drink and smoke, and he would share his pain pills with me while I’d entertain folks in his camp.” Jim absorbed his father’s encyclopedic knowledge of artists like Hank Williams, Johnny Cash and Hank Snow. “In my teens, when I started hearing Waylon Jennings and Hank Williams Jr., I was like, this is what I’m gonna do the rest of my life!”
Repeat Offender is authentic country from an artist that walks the walk and talks the talk. Mitchell writes and plays this music, not because he wants the #1 country song on the charts (although that would be nice) but because he has to. “Anytime I I play something I’m trying to reach an audience and make them feel something” Mitchell notes. “It’s great if you like the beat or you like the lyrics, but maybe I just wrote something kinda deep- and I want you to feel it.”
HOT TRACKS: Just Like Old Hank, Hillbilly (with a Rock N Roll Heart), Hell Or High Water
BLOOD BROTHERS LIVE IN CANADA Mike Zito & Albert Castiglia (Gulf Coast Records) *****+
Blues played with the brute force of rock & roll; that’s Blood Brothers Live In Canada. Capturing the raw excitement of these two 800 pound gorillas on guitar from their recent tour, Mike Zito and Albert Castiglia have plenty to proud about with this steaming new album.
When you get guitarists like Zito and Castiglia sharing a stage you just KNOW there will be fireworks. “Our shows in White Rock (BC) were full of energy and fire” Mike Zito says of BBLIC. “Blue Frog Studios set an exceptional vibe for the task at hand. Alberta and the band were seriously on that night; I felt really good about it.” Albert adds that “the stars were aligned that night in White Rock; the perfect room, perfect acoustics, an amazing audience and incendiary playing by everyone in the band. It was a night to remember!”
Live In Canada, recorded just this past May, has two of the things I love most in music, rock & roll brawn and the blues, and by the sounds of it the gig was an out-of-body experience for Mike, Albert and the band. This disc includes live versions of 10 of the 11 songs on their Blood Brothers studio record from earlier this year. Also included is Zito’s tune Gone To Texas plus a blistering take on Neil Young’s Rockin’ In The Free World that ends off the album. When it comes to blues guitar there are few that can touch Zito and Castiglia when they’re in top form, and they sure were for this show. And it’s not just balls-to-the-wall rockin’ blues either… when they bring it down for A Thousand Heartaches you feel it just as deep but in a different way.
Blood Brothers Live In Canada is a great sounding album from the top down; performances to production and the overall vibe, this is what rockin’ blues should sound like; passionate, powerful and exciting. It’s one of the best albums of the year in ANY genre, and since I live in Victoria now, just a ferry ride away from White Rock, I want to be there when they play again.
HOT TRACKS: You’re Gonna Burn, Hey Sweet Mama, Hill Country Jam, Rockin’ In The Free World
11X11 11 Guys Quartet (VizzTone) *****
This is a new album from 11 Guys Quartet with a history. After the success of their 2020 release Small Blues & Grooves, the pandemic confined them to quarters, as it were. To keep up the momentum they dug in with remote recording and produced 8 new singles which were also accompanied by wildly creative videos, and that brings us to the new album. 11X11 contains all 8 of those singles, plus 3 brand new tracks- this is some terrific blues.
11 X 11 is mostly instrumentals with only 2 tracks being vocal cuts; Drivin’ A Fast Car and He Ain’t Got You. The music biz isn’t something new for these Guys, they’ve been friends and bandmates since the 70’s. The group is Paul Lenart on guitar, Bill Mather on bass, Chuck Purro on drums and Richard Rosenblatt on harp. Reaction to the aforementioned 2020 album was universally positive, and it’s gratifying to see that they made it through the pandemic and came out the other side. Being mostly instrumental cuts these songs are all about the groove, all the more remarkable when you consider that most of them were created in a remote situation.
Rosanblatt’s expressive harp takes the place of lead vocals for the most part as the rhythm section of Mather and Purro supply one danceable backbeat after another. Some great slide work from guitarist Lenart, and his solos have attitude and expressiveness. Comments on their previous work together apply here too “A treasure trove of great music” (UK), “Masterful, understated and just plain cool” (Canada) and “the close chemistry in the playing breathes right through the cd” (USA). 11 X 11 is the sound 4 old friends playing hard, letting it all hang out and having a hell of a time. You’d be hard pressed to find a band that grooves better or more consistently than these guys do, it’s really something to behold.
HOT TRACKS: Lightning Road, Blues Beyond Midnight, He Ain’t Got You