Issue 14-1 January 3, 2020

Cover photo © 2020 Michael Kurgansky


 In This Issue 

Marty Gunther has our feature interview with harmonica master Jerry Portnoy. We have 6 Blues reviews for you this week including new music from 11 Guys Quartet, Tennessee Redemption, The Mike Duke Project, The NEM Project, Seb’s Music Shop and Doug Duffey and BADD.

We have the latest in Blues society news. All this and MORE! SCROLL DOWN!!


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 Featured Interview – Jerry Portnoy 

imageEvery musician in the blues has a good back story about how he developed an interest in the music, but no one’s life has taken a more fascinating path than Jerry Portnoy, who’s best known for his work as the harmonica player in Muddy Waters’ band in the ‘70s and as a founding member of both the Legendary Blues Band and Ronnie Earl’s Broadcasters.

The great majority of artists in the modern era have discovered the music in the grooves of records. Others learned it at the feet of family members who grew up in the tradition. But not Jerry. He’s different. It literally seeped into his subconscious as a toddler, hid there through his childhood and hit him like a freight train around the time he was old enough to vote!

A stylish dresser who’s known for his dark, rich tone and agile play on the reeds, Portnoy was barely out of diapers when the music began coloring his life on Maxwell Street, the virtual ground zero of the blues in Chicago.

Now based in Massachusetts, Jerry grew up the son of a shopkeeper operated Max Portnoy & Son, King of Carpets, peddling flooring to the masses after emigrating from Kiev in what was then the Russian province of Ukraine.

Maxwell Street exists today solely as part of blues legend. A neighborhood that once served as home for Jewish immigrants and where jazz great Benny Goodman grew up, it was far more than a district of shops owned primarily by first-generation Americans. It was also a flourishing open-air market where anything and everything was for sale.

The neighborhood gave up its ghost to urban renewal in the latter part of the 20th century, first to expand the Dan Ryan Expressway to the east and then by development of the expanding University of Illinois-Chicago campus from the west. But in its heyday, it was a major crossroads where the Southern drawl of poor blacks who’d migrated from the South blended with the voices of other transplants from around the globe into an excitement filled cacophony as everyone shopped for a great deal.

The Portnoy’s shop was situated a block and a half east on Maxwell Street from its epicenter, which was its intersection with Halsted about 13 blocks south and a mile east of the heart of the Loop. It was totally low rent – the complete opposite of the glitz and glitter of Michigan Avenue’s Magnificent Mile to the north.

The aroma of fried onions from Jimmy’s Hot Dog Stand — which operated at the heart of the neighborhood 24 hours a day — dominated the atmosphere, blending seamlessly with car exhaust, kerosene burning in 55-gallon drums bringing warmth to the peddlers and musicians on the street during winter and stale urine and rotting garbage emanating from the alleyways during the summer heat.

Small-town folks flocked there from across the Midwest on weekends, frequently becoming lambs for the slaughter when the “bargains” they unearthed turned out to be cheap knockoffs instead.

But the blues there was out of this world.

The neighborhood was an incubator when recent arrivals from Mississippi and Louisiana began developing their techniques, turning the country blues of their home states into what became the intense, electrified Chicago sound. It was there that many of today’s blues gods first experimented with amplification for the first time. They played for tips, powering their equipment using extension cords and paying shopkeepers a quarter or more to plug in to their electrical outlets.

“I was down there every Sunday from 1947 to 1953,” Jerry, now age 76, remembers today. “I started going there when I was five. And that was still the height of the neighborhood.

“There was music everywhere,” Portnoy remembers, noting: “But there was a lot more than blues.”

On any given day, you could hear gospel, gypsy jazz, klezmer and – yes – even classical music, too.

A who’s who of blues artists — including Robert Nighthawk, Bo Diddley, Honeyboy Edwards, Big Bill Broonzy, Earl Hooker, Floyd Jones, Johnny Young, Blind Arvella Gray, Jimmy Rogers, Big Walter Horton, J.B. Lenoir and, later, Junior Wells and Koko Taylor — all honed their chops there.

Although many historians have claimed Muddy did, too, Portnoy is quick to point out that he didn’t, adding that the undisputed king of the blues during that era “took umbrage if you accused him of it.

image“I think he thought that that was beneath him,” Jerry says.

But one person who was present was a young Little Walter Jacobs. Like all of the biggest names in the era, Walter set up shop in the alley just to the west of the hot dog stand, and Jerry passed him by frequently when he left the shop and crossed the intersection to pick up corned beef sandwiches for his father from Lyon’s Deli, which was directly across the street from the alley.

Just a teenager himself and still playing country blues that was more reminiscent of Sonny Boy Williamson than the revolutionary, pyrotechnic styling he’d perfect in the ‘50s, Little Walter was riding high at the time, having just recorded his first single.

The disc — “Ora-Nelle Blues” backed by “Just Keep Loving Her” – was recorded at Maxwell Radio and Records, a few steps west of the alley in the same block, only a short while before. Now one of the most highly prized blues recordings of the late ‘40s, it was only one of two platters ever to appear on the store’s Ora Nelle imprint.

“The blues fascinated me,” Jerry recalls. “It was the soundtrack of my childhood,” quickly adding: “I didn’t pay it any particular attention. It was just my ordinary environment.

“I didn’t even know what blues was! But the way I feel about it is that it imprinted those sounds in my head. And when I got exposed to blues years later, it triggered something and I just went crazy for it.

“My father got forced out of that store in 1953 under eminent domain because the city was gonna put a highway right through the block he was on. That was the beginning of the end of Maxwell Street.”

Gentrification slowly ate away at the neighborhood, which disappeared completely when wrecking balls finally tore through the remaining buildings in 2000. Meanwhile, Jerry went off in a different direction. He graduated high school, attended college on and off for a while, held various jobs and hung out at another long-gone landmark, Howard-Paulina Billiards, the largest pool hall in the city on Chicago’s far North Side.

“Then I got drafted,” Portnoy remembers. “I was a paratrooper in the 101st Airborne Division.”

Known as the Screaming Eagles, the unit played major roles in both World War II, where it participated in storming the beach at Normandy and the Battle of the Budge, and Vietnam, where it played a vital role in the assault on Hamburger Hill, but Jerry was already back home prior to that battle after filing for a discharge as a conscientious objector and eventually winning his separation.

“That was an interesting episode,” he says. “But at any rate, I got out of the Army in the fall of ’66, went back to Chicago and managed the pool hall for four or five months. We had 21 brand-new Gold Crown Brunswick pool tables, ten antique five-by-ten billiard tables and one five-by-ten snooker table.

“Then, early in ’67, I went out to San Francisco – my sister was living out there – and was there for the famous Summer of Love. In ’68, I went to Europe, just kinda bummin’ around.”

The blues came calling just before he left.

“I was over at a friend’s house,” Portnoy remembers, “and he had a harmonica sitting on his mantelpiece. I picked it up, and he told me I could play it.

“There was a lot of musical talent in my family,” Jerry says, “none of which I thought I possessed. I had had abortive attempts at guitar and piano and even accordion — and couldn’t play anything. Everything required a degree of digital dexterity.

“But the harmonica was strictly an aural instrument. I picked it up, put it in my mouth and figured: ‘Low notes to the left, high notes to the right. Breathe in, breathe out…I got this!

“I had this physical affinity for it. I had this sense immediately that I could do something with it.”

The friend told him to take the harp with him on his trip.

“I fooled around with it while I was hitchhiking,” Jerry remembers. “I figured out how to play a few things. And then, when I got up to Sweden, I was staying at this kinda hippie crash pad. I went out one day and found a record store downtown and found this Sonny Boy Williamson record – Rice Miller, Sonny Boy No. 2.

“It was an album he’d recorded in Europe with Memphis Slim, Matt ‘Guitar’ Murphy and Billy Stepney on drums. It had a gray cover with some stars on it, and he was in profile with a harmonica stuck in his mouth – the long way, like he was gonna swallow it. He could play that way…Rick Estrin can do that.

image“Anyway, I bought the album, took it back to the apartment, dropped some acid (LSD), put on the record – and I never came back!”

The very next day, after a police raid, Portnoy found himself in a jail cell, where he awaited deportation back to America.

“To make a long story short, I got a free flight back to the United States, which is exactly what I wanted,” he says, “because when I dropped that acid and heard Sonny Boy, I said to myself: ‘That’s the coolest shit I ever heard! I gotta learn how to do that – and the States are the only place to learn.’

“I couldn’t have been happier because I didn’t have money to get back on my own.”

Portnoy stayed in California for a brief while, meeting Sonny Terry and Estrin and starting to play out a little on his own. “I started getting into it,” Jerry says, “and then my father got sick in early 1970. I went back to Chicago, and the music kept me there. I started playing professionally.”

He was shopping at Bob Koester’s famed Jazz Record Mart – then the base of operations for his Delmark label — at its old Grand Avenue location shortly after his arrival when he spotted a poster on the wall advertising guitarist/mandolin player Johnny Young.

An artist who was as wide as he was tall and one of the first Windy City-based, electrified bluesmen of his era, Young was appearing at the Wise Fools Pub, a long-running club near DePaul University on the North Side.

“I go up there,” he says. “And as I’m approaching the place, I can hear the music and I can hear Big Walter’s harp pourin’ out of the doorway. I could hardly pull the money out of my pocket fast enough.

“I walk in and Johnny looks kinda like a bowling ball – round and black. His playing was very simple, but what a beat. It’s Johnny Young with the Aces – Louis and Dave Myers and Fred Below on drums and Big Walter on harp.

“That was the first live music I saw after returning to Chicago, and I got to know all those guys and started sitting in with the band.”

All superstars in their own right, guitarist/harp player Louis, bassist Dave and Below were the finest rhythm section in the golden era of Chicago blues in the ‘50s after bursting into prominence in support of Little Walter.

Enthralled by Big Walter’s sound and revolutionary technique, which included the three-note turnaround used by most harp players today, Portnoy starting visiting him at home, traveling to one of the most dangerous neighborhoods on the South Side with a bottle of V.O. in tow to share and often using it to mimic a weapon underneath his clothing as he walked the street.

Apparently, Horton quickly realized that Jerry was something special. As most folks who knew him remember, he was often a difficult man for strangers to approach — suspicious at first meeting, but warm after you’d earned his trust.

After cracking open the booze, Jerry would ask how Horton played various pieces. The master would say something along the lines of “it goes like this…” and launch into it, but it was up to the student to listen and attempt to reverse engineer it because Walter wouldn’t go into much, if any, detail.

Fortunately, Portnoy was persistent, sometimes bringing along a tape recorder to capture what he could. And other top harp players of the era were also very supportive as he started sitting in with dozens of artists in the city, including Lightnin’ Hopkins and John Littlejohn, one of the best and most often overlooked slide guitarists ever.

“I lo-o-oved Johnny Littlejohn,” Jerry says today. “Working with Johnny…as a band leader, as a guy to play for both musically and personally, he was tops in my book. He had a great sense of humor, he was a good cat to work for, he was fair and he was so-o-o underrated.

“That guy was a great singer and a great guitar player. And he had that real Mississippi whine in his voice. I just loved hearin’ him sing, man! I miss that cat. I got his picture up on my wall.”

One of the first members of a new wave of young white harmonica players in the blues, following in the footsteps of Paul Butterfield, Charlie Musselwhite, Corky Siegel and Paul Oscher, Portnoy’s first true professional gig came after Young asked him to work a show with him in Appleton, Wis.

“I worked with Johnny Young for about two years,” Jerry remembers. “He was a fun guy who could turn evil in an instant because he couldn’t handle hard liquor. He’d fire me at night and hire me back in the morning.”

Portnoy spent the next couple of years with Johnny Littlejohn and then Sam Lay. He was working a day job at Cook County Jail, performing vocational evaluations on inmates, in April 1974 when the blues world lost Young after a heart attack.

“There was going to be a benefit at a club called On Broadway,” Jerry reminisces. “That day, I stuck a couple of harps in my pocket before I went to work. I didn’t know who I’d play with, but I knew all the cats around town. I figured I’d get up there with somebody.

image“When I walked into the place, though, I almost turned around and walked out. The place was packed practically shoulder-to-shoulder, and I didn’t know if I wanted to deal with it.

“I was just about to leave, but looked toward the stage, and saw Muddy sitting at a table. I looked around the room and saw the other guys in his band — Luther ‘Guitar Junior’ Johnson, Willie ‘Big Eyes’ Smith and Calvin ‘Fuzz’ Jones — but I didn’t see Mojo Buford, his harp player.

“When I saw Muddy, he looked right at me and our eyes locked. He put his finger up and motioned for me to come over to see him. At that moment, any thought of leaving vanished because that was like a royal summons from the king.

“I went up there, and he asked me if I’d play a set with him. I said: ‘Of course.’ Then he told his manager to take my number.”

The set went off without a hitch, Jerry says, adding: “I played pretty well, I guess.”

After the set, he stood outside in the rain and waited for the chance to thank Waters personally for the opportunity.

Waters emerged from the bar, exchanged pleasantries and then asked: “Boy, can you travel?”

“Muddy, wherever you want me to be in this world, just tell me and I’ll be there,” Jerry answered.

“You’re gonna hear from me,” Waters replied.

Three days later, Muddy’s manager called and instructed him to give Waters a call. As Portnoy says today: It didn’t take a genius to figure out what was about to transpire next.

Muddy told him: “We’re going to Indianapolis May 25th — playing a big baseball stadium” then told him to familiarize himself with the other musicians – he was going to replace Buford, who had gone off on his own, and become a member of the Muddy Waters Blues Band.

Portnoy uses a baseball analogy to describe his attitude when that day finally arrived. The feeling was akin to walking out onto the grass of Yankee Stadium to play centerfield. For any blues harp player, it was the greatest job imaginable.

“Muddy was a great band leader,” Jerry says today. “He was pretty laisse faire. He hired you because he knew you could do the job and pretty much let you do what you wanted unless he found it objectionable. That’s when he’d give you a look or something.

“But he was really generous. There are a lot of band leaders out there who are jealous of their sidemen. They’ve gotta be the star and don’t want anybody else getting over with the crowd. But Muddy was the complete opposite.

“The first week I was in the band, we opened up the Cellar Door in Georgetown (Washington, D.C.). I was standing next to Muddy, and right before my solo, he put his hand in the small of my back, gave me a little push and said: ‘Go get ‘em, son!’

“That’s what he was about. If I tore the crowd up, he was happy. To walk out on that bandstand was always a feeling of pride.”

Portnoy’s stay with Waters included some of Muddy’s most successful recordings, including the albums I’m Ready, Muddy “Mississippi” Waters and King Bee as well as Johnson’s Luther’s Blues, a solo effort backed by Muddy’s band.

His run ended in the summer of 1980, when he Smith, Jones and Johnson departed along with keyboard player Pinetop Perkins and guitarist Bob Margolin. They left following an unresolved dispute with Waters’ manager, who, they believed, was taking unfair advantage of them financially.

image“We didn’t have an issue with Muddy,” Jerry insists. “But his manager made it tough on us – and fed Muddy’s worst instincts. It just got untenable at the end.”

Details of that falling out remain murky, but Portnoy promises to tell all in his autobiography – if it ever gets finished.

Jones, Smith, Perkins and Portnoy reunited shortly thereafter as The Legendary Blues Band. Their first album, Life of Ease, featured Louis Myers in the lineup, with  a second disc, 1983’s Red Hot ‘n’ Blue.

“We had such great comradery in that band,” he says. “I wasn’t really in favor of that name, but Willie said: ‘Well, they always introduced us as ‘Muddy Waters and His Legendary Blues Band. So let’s just use it.’ We went along with that. And, at least initially, it helped us getting started.”

The band continued in various incarnations for the balance of the ‘80s, and the lineup truly was legendary. “Our first guitar player was Duke Robillard,” Jerry notes. And both of the Myers brothers appeared on the first disc. Other members included guitarists Billy Flynn, Nick Moss and Little Smokey Smothers and harp player Madison Slim, among others in different alignments.

Portnoy decided to call it quits after a six-year run. “I ‘retired,’” he says. “I bagged it in 1986. I was burned out. I’d been on the road for 12 years, and I was drinking a lot. My marriage was in trouble and all that stuff.”

He worked as an advertising copy writer for the next year or so and briefly fronted his own band before being approached by Ronnie Earl, who was forming his own band, The Broadcasters, after a lifetime as the featured guitarist with the Rhode Island-based horn band Roomful of Blues.

Their two-year partnership proved rocky before Jerry launched his own band, The Streamliners. Their four years together produced one album, Poison Kisses in 1991. A disc that’s chockful of great original material Jerry penned himself, it also was released as Home Run Hitter on the Indigo label in 1995, getting far more distribution and including three additional tracks.

It was around the same time of the album’s first release that Portnoy began a fruitful association with Eric Clapton, initially when Eric was scheduled to appear for 24 nights at Royal Albert Hall in London, shows that live on in the 15-cut Reprise release, 24 Nights.

“Around Thanksgiving 1990, I got a call from Eric to go over to England after New Year’s to rehearse for six blues shows that he was planning,” he says. “It was going to be six nights with a small (four-piece) rock band, six nights with a big (nine-piece) rock band, six nights with an all-star blues band and six nights with an orchestra.

“I was part of the all-star blues band that had Eric, Jimmy Vaughan, Buddy Guy, Robert Cray, Albert Collins, me on harp, Johnnie Johnson (Chuck Berry’s famed sideman) and Chuck Leavell (of the Allman Brothers) on keys, Jamie Oldaker (of the Bob Seger Band) on drums and Joey Stampinato (Bonnie Raitt, NRBQ) on drums.

“At the end of those shows, Eric really, really liked my playing,” Portnoy recalls. “He invited me back for the shows in ’92. Everything fell to turmoil because his son died, and those shows didn’t take place.

“But he did call me back for ’93 with Duck Dunn on bass, Chris Stainton (of Joe Cocker fame) on piano, Andy Fairweather Low on second guitar and Richie Hayward (of Little Feat) on drums. At that point, I became a regular member of the band because he was going to do all blues for a while.”

Jerry’s harp work graces Clapton’s From the Cradle as well as his Me and Mr. Johnson, Complete Clapton and Forever Man albums, after which Eric veered away from the blues for other musical directions.

Portnoy subsequently earned a Grammy nomination in 1996 as a member of the Muddy Waters Tribute Band for the You’re Gonna Miss Me When I’m Dead and Gone album. He’s been in semi-retirement since 1997, when he released a three-CD instructional package entitled Blues Harmonica Masterclass, which still sells well today.

“I pretty much lived off of that instructional video for ten years,” he says, now preferring to enjoy life in home near the ocean in Dennis, Mass., and frequent visits from his grandchildren while working locally with his own band occasionally and appearing nationally when the money is right.

His only other album as a front man is Down in the Mood Room, a blues/jazz hybrid that was produced by Robillard and released in 2001. Currently, he has no plans for another, knowing that a new CD would force him to tour on a regular basis, something he truly doesn’t want to do.

“I’ve done European tours and a couple of South American tours, and I’ll come out for festivals if they pay my freight,” he says. “I played the Niagara Falls Blues Festival in September, and I’ve got a couple of other things in the hopper, too.”

That includes a Mark Hummel’s Blues Harmonica Blowout tour of the West Coast with Robillard in tow on guitar, which was scheduled for early January 2020, about the same time this interview was scheduled to run. He also posts occasional instructional videos on the www.sonicjunction.com website.

There’s no argument about it: Portnoy is a great, traditional harp player. But what Jerry’s most proud of, he says, is his songwriting. “When you play a good solo,” he notes, “it vanishes into thin air. But if you write a good song, it stays there forever.”

Check out where he’s appearing by visiting his website: www.jerryportnoy.com. And while you’re there, be sure to check out his personal vignette on Maxwell Street, which will probably be a segment in his autobiography down the road. It goes into far more detail than contained here.

Blues Blast Magazine Senior writer Marty Gunther has lived a blessed life. Now based out of Charlotte, N.C., his first experience with live music came at the feet of the first generation of blues legends at the Newport Folk Festivals in the 1960s. A former member of the Chicago blues community, he’s a professional journalist and blues harmonica player who co-founded the Nucklebusters, one of the hardest working bands in South Florida.


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 Featured Blues Review – 1 of 6 

image11 Guys Quartet – Small Blues And Groove

VizzTone Label Group

14 tracks

Nearly 40 years ago, four guys got together and had a great time playing the bars and clubs in and around Boston. They blended blues and rock and had as much of a great time playing together as the crowds did listening to them. They were called the 11th Hour Blues Band and featured Paul Lenart on guitar, Bill “Coach” Mather on bass, Chuck Purro on drums and Richard “Rosy” Rosenblatt on harp. They recorded an album in 1985 entitled Hot Time In The City Tonight on the then rather new Tone-Cool Records. They played with other musicians and bands over the years but always managed to get together as their original quartet from time to time because the chemistry and camaraderie were important and something they enjoyed.

Fast forward to 2008 and the four of them landed in the studio to record a bunch of instrumental tracks that they had penned. No big showmanship, no histrionics on the guitar or harp; this was an effort to play solid tunes with restraint and just outstanding musicianship. Making good music was important but did not require “too many notes” nor stratospheric soloing. The stuff never went public until now, well over 10 years later. Now called The 11 Guys Quartet, the guys decided the world needed to hear this music. Given that Rosy Rosenblatt is the founder and President of VizzTone, they had a great vehicle to produce and promote the album and now the world has Small Blues And Grooves to savor. It’s stripped down, it’s all instrumentals and it’s very cool. No one is trying to outdo the other guy. It’s just a foursome of musicians doing what they do best- playing the blues!

“Road Trippin’” gets things started. It’s got a Freddie King vibe and it’s a slick instrumental with ringing guitar and solid harp work. It’s a great cut with a driving beat and a super hook to begin the set with. “Jackrabbit” is a swinging, up-tempo cut with a frenzied yet still controlled approach. It’s pretty cool stuff. Next up is “Sweet Taste,” a nice slow- to mid-tempo piece with more slightly dirty and very tasty harp. “Doggin’ It” features more guitar up front as both Paul and Rosy lay it out for us to enjoy. “Sleepless” is a slow and pretty tune made for a lazy day of sitting around and playing the blues. The guys stroll about almost carelessly yet quite together as they sublimely go through the paces of this sweet little cut. The pace certainly picks up with “East Cambridge Cannonball,” a fast number with a neat groove. “Speakeasy Serenade” is next, perhaps a somber sort of lament for the days of hanging out at the speakeasy with illegal booze and gambling and some loose women. The boys play with restraint and control as they work their way through this marvelous cut.

“Four Maypops” is up next, a song that likens the quartet to the “passiflora incarnata,” which is usually called the May-pop flower. It’s a pretty purple blossom with fruit that is an edible, leathery berry (the may-pop). It is the size and shape of a chicken egg; green as it grows and then and turning yellow as it ripens. When stepped on, it makes a loud pop. Here band gives us their take on this with a vibrant and upbeat musical treat. “Down And Dirty” is slow blues that does just what the title says. Following that is “Swing Low,” a jiving and bopping cut with a snare and bassline that moves along smartly. It’s pretty slick and gets you up and wanting to dance. “Hey Daddyo” continues a bit with that vibe but going more rockabilly in its’ approach. With “Midnight Streetcar” we get a lazy and thoughtful blues that nicely contrasts the prior cut. “Rhumba Boogaloo” gets us going with a bongo/tenor drum sounddriving the song and just nice harp and guitar work. Things conclude with “Swamp Ride,” a great little number with more stinging guitar and harp swapping off and taking us home.

Nothing is overstated or overdone here, just clean, cool cuts ranging from barely two minutes to just over four minutes each. Each cut gives us the impression that these guys are enjoying their work and that they can really play despite no one trying to make a big show of it. Spending over a decade awaiting release, we now get to hear this fine set of tunes. If you are looking for blues-rock anthems of major proportion then stay away; but if you are looking for a great set of blues tunes to kick back and enjoy with perhaps your favorite adult beverage or equivalent, then look no further.

The 11 Guys Quartet deliver up some cool stuff that showcases the East Coast blues sound of four great musicians doing what they do best- making good music. I really enjoyed the album and I think most blues lovers looking for a nice set of instrumental tunes will, too!

Reviewer Steve Jones is president of the Crossroads Blues Society and is a long standing blues lover. He is a retired Navy commander who served his entire career in nuclear submarines. In addition to working in his civilian career since 1996, he writes for and publishes the bi-monthly newsletter for Crossroads, chairs their music festival and works with their Blues In The Schools program. He resides in Byron, IL.


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 Featured Blues Review – 2 of 6 

imageTennessee Redemption – Self Titled

Endless Blues Records TREBR1032019

10 songs – 48 minutes

www.tennesseeredemption.com

Formed by harmonica player Brandon Santini and guitarist Jeff Jensen – both stars in their own right, Tennessee Redemption is a stellar reunion of longtime friends who’ve played hundreds of gigs together both on Beale Street and around the world.

A fixture in Memphis for most of the 2000s, but now based in Springfield, Ill., Brandon first met Jeff in 2011, when Jensen, a California native, was about to head home out of frustration after abandoning his band. A chance meeting resulted in Santini offering him the guitar and band-leader spot in group.

Their partnership endured for two years before Jensen launched his own band again. In the years since, Santini has gone on to be a multiple nominee as harp player and entertainer of the year in the Blues Music Awards, and his This Time Another Year disc with Jeff in tow was a finalist for 2014 contemporary blues honors. Another disc, The Longshot, was a 2019 Blues Blast Music Awards winner, beating out Shemekia Copeland and others in the same category. Jensen, meanwhile, has been a finalist for Blues Blast’s 2015 Sean Costello Rising Star trophy in 2015 and has released a series of powerful albums in his own right.

The pair reunited in 2017 for a few festival dates, billing themselves as The Santini-Jensen Project. The effort proved so enjoyable that they vowed to work together more often, and Tennessee Redemption is the result. It’s something they prefer to regard as a collaboration rather than a supergroup, and the lineup includes folks who work regularly in both their touring bands.

The roster includes Timo Arthur, who replaced Jensen in Santini’s band, on second guitar along with Brandon’s bassist, Bill Ruffino, and Jeff’s drummer, David “Alabanimal” Green, with guest appearances by percussionist James Cunningham, who’s worked with both men, and Jared Dover, who adds backing vocals. The two front men trade off on the mike throughout.

This collection of eight originals and two covers was recorded in Memphis and produced by Jensen. It kicks off with the medium-paced shuffle, “Glad to Be,” which rejoices about the time – both good and bad – that they spent working on Beale Street, where there “was no tomorrow.” Jensen’s vocals are light and warm, offset by a brief, but blazing mid-tune harp solo.

Ruffino’s bass introduces “We Got a Thing Going On,” a true-blues burner with Brandon in charge. It’s a slower tempo shuffle in which his tasty harp runs and single-note guitar runs fuse with Al Green-style Memphis R&B. The sound shifts to a lazy Delta feel with “Souls in the Water,” an open invitation with autobiographical overtones that invites listener to join the musicians as they float down the Mississippi.

The Southern rocker “Back to Tennessee” sings praise of the Volunteer State, where the singer finds solace after his lady’s left for good, while “Leave My Body” is an interesting, minor-keyed stop-time number delivered from the prospective of someone who wants folks to place worldly items near him in case he’s dead, but not really gone.

The sound brightens dramatically for “See About Me,” a sweet invitation for a lady to come along for a ride, before the band cleverly reinvents Tom Waits’ “Come on Up to the House.” Double lead lines are featured on harp and guitar for “You Don’t Love Me” before Brandon takes charge for a fiery cover of Little Walter Jacobs’ “Watch Yourself.” The acoustic “I’m Going to Mexico” brings the action to close with Jensen ready to seek out a medicine man after all else has failed.

Available through most major retailers, Tennessee Redemption is a pleaser throughout.

Blues Blast Magazine Senior writer Marty Gunther has lived a blessed life. Now based out of Charlotte, N.C., his first experience with live music came at the feet of the first generation of blues legends at the Newport Folk Festivals in the 1960s. A former member of the Chicago blues community, he’s a professional journalist and blues harmonica player who co-founded the Nucklebusters, one of the hardest working bands in South Florida.



 Featured Blues Review – 3 of 6 

imageThe Mike Duke Project – …Took A While

Little Village Foundation – 2019

15 tracks; 51 minutes

The Little Village Foundation is a non-profit label, dedicated to releasing material from artists that deserve to be heard but have hitherto remained ‘under the radar’. Mike Duke was born in 1948 and played through the 70’s with bands like Wet Willie and The Outlaws. This interesting project assembles fifteen tunes written and performed by Mike who in 1981 sent a demo to Bob Brown, then manager of Huey Lewis & The News.

That song was “Hope You Love Me Like You Say” and Bob immediately saw its potential for Huey who went on to record three of Mike’s songs, including the big hit “Doin’ It All For My Baby” and “Let Her Go And Start Over”, all three of which appear here in their original versions with Mike on vocals and piano and band members that include Wet Willie’s Jimmy Hall on sax. Those three songs appear in a run of tracks 2-4 and it is immediately clear why Bob was attracted to the songs which sound like a combination of Boz Scaggs, early Southern Rock and Muscle Shoals productions. Apparently there were over 60 original songs under consideration for this retrospective collection but the 15 selected are certainly worth hearing.

Four songs were re-recorded in June 2019 with Kid Andersen producing and involving experienced musicians such as Angela Strehli on backing vocals, Jim Pugh on organ, Kevin Hayes on drums and Steve Ehrmann on bass; Elvin Bishop adds a slide solo to the attractive “I Can’t Let You Go” and on “Let Me Be Your Fool Tonight” and the Zydeco Flames bring a real New Orleans feel with accordion and washboard. The relaxed tribute to all things Southern “That’s What’s So Good About The South”, recorded in 1991 with former Allman Brothers guitarist Jack Pearson, was apparently pitched to Dr John and the earliest song here, 1977’s “Coming Round Again”, was offered to Gregg Allman when he broke up with Cher: both songs would have fitted their intended recipients well, the former having a tongue-in-cheek attitude and the latter being a real tearjerker with superb brass and guitar accompaniment.

There are also recordings from across the intervening years: highlights include the bubbling “Little Miss Ponytail” and the tender solo piano/vocal “When You Had It All”, Mike taking a nostalgic look back in time. The collection closes with “Nicasio”, a short live piano instrumental named after and recorded at the roadhouse set up by Bob Brown where for more than twenty years Mike has been a regular performer and manager of the general store.

In the sleeve notes Bob Brown details how he met Mike and continued to work with him over the years. Mike’s debut release has indeed taken a while but demonstrates that good things are worth waiting for. Not really blues but for anyone with broad tastes there is plenty to enjoy here.

Reviewer John Mitchell is a blues enthusiast based in the UK who enjoys a wide variety of blues and roots music, especially anything in the ‘soul/blues’ category. Favorites include contemporary artists such as Curtis Salgado, Tad Robinson, Albert Castiglia and Doug Deming and classic artists including Bobby Bland, Howling Wolf and the three ‘Kings’. He gets over to the States as often as he can to see live blues.


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 Featured Blues Review – 4 of 6 

imageThe NEM Project – Self Titled

Tangent Boy Productions

www.thenemproject.com

8 song, 30 min.

The NEM Project is an impressive album. Nick Evans Mowery (the “NEM” of the project) has been churning out straight Rock and Rock laced Blues and Soul since 2004 either under his own name or this “Project” moniker. This new album is impressive because of the depth and fluidity of the performances by Mowery, who apparently plays everything but the drums (drumming credits not listed). Playing all the instruments on a record is usually reserved for the savant greatness of Stevie Wonder or dearly departed Prince. It is not always done well by mere mortals often sounding too stiff and with little variation. Mowery, however, nails it, all 8 tracks sound fresh and diverse.

This record is soulful Blues-Rock. Openers “Back Up Against the Wall” and “Delta Fills In the Rain” set a rustic, snappy tone. “Against the Wall” is that kind of charging smirking chordy Roots Rock that Lowell George created the blueprint for in Little Feat. “Delta” has a smooth Memphis flop which perfectly complements the lyrics about playing on Beale Street. Coupled with the acoustic barrelhouse roll of “Bar Room Days,” Mowery creates an endearing picture of what his dues-paying must have looked like. The aesthetic is made whole with the Gospel-Soul turned Yacht Rock ballad “Sista Sue,” think Sam and Dave fronting Steely Dan with Earth Wind and Fire’s rhythm section.

The songwriting of this album is obviously heartfelt and close to Mowery’s experience. Not only does NEM deal with being a struggling musician he address loss, love, family and friendship. In spite of all the meaningful subject matter, some of the lyrics are overly direct. In one of the most moving concepts, Mowery sings a tale of a father imparting lessons to a son (it’s unclear which he is), “That’s What Grown Men Do.” The straightforward lyricism of this song is more in line with modern Country music and lacks rhyme and poetry. The image of “Delta Fills in the Rain,” a great concept, is laid explicitly bare by more straight forward reporting. This type of lyricism is indicative of certain types of music but lacks the nuance, invention and rhythmic depth of the Blues. As your humble Blues Blast reviewer often notes, this is a minor quip when the performances are consistently so engaging and enjoyable.

Mowery is one hell of a singer. With a husky voice that has weight and warmth, NEM belts out every line with conviction and clarion confidence. Equally accomplished on guitar, singing and shredding is NEM’s normal performance mode. He is that type of musician though, who is able to layer the keyboards, bass and background vocals and create a singular product. Recorded at his own studio, this is a passion project. Sounding relaxed and inspired, Nick Evans Mowery delivers a concise and powerful artistic statement that is well worth multiple listens.

Reviewer Bucky O’Hare is a Bluesman based in Boston who spreads his brand of blues and funk all over New England. Bucky has dedicated himself to experiencing the Blues and learning its history. As a writer, Bucky has been influenced by music critics and social commentators such as Angela Davis, Peter Guralnick, Eric Nisenson, Francis Davis and Henry Louis Gates Jr.


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 Featured Blues Review – 5 of 6 

imageSeb’s Music Shop – One Man Band – Blues Volume 1

Self-Release – 2019

11 tracks; 37 minutes

www.sebsmusicshop.com

Seb’s Music Shop is a one man band project by Sébastien Plante, a founder member of French Canadian rock band The Respectables and it is Seb’s first foray into the blues. Apart from a guest appearance by harp player Jim Zeller on one track, everything you hear on the disc is Seb who plays guitars, harp and drums. In the sleevenotes Seb also gives credit to Paul DesLauriers for ‘teaching me some of those cool blues licks’.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the album is mostly covers of blues classics: Robert Johnson will always be a touchstone for blues artists though four of his songs is quite a high proportion of what is on offer here! There are also one each from John Lee Hooker, Jimmy Reed, Bo Diddley and Chuck Berry, plus three originals to round out the disc.

The choppy guitar and heavy foot stomp works well on “Crossroads” and Bo’s “Who Do You Love?” adds substitutes tambourine for Jerome Green’s maracas. A Jimmy Reed medley of “Babe What You Want Me To Do/Bright Lights Big City” softens the stomp a bit and gives Seb a chance to show off his guitar chops. Equally familiar as the distinctive Bo Diddley sound is Chuck Berry’s signature rock and roll riff and Seb has it down pat on “Roll Over Beethoven” which rocks along very well before he gives us a pair of RJ tunes: a heavy but catchy take on “Stop Breaking Down” with slide and “32-20 Blues” which opens with quiet guitar work before morphing into a country blues which seems to have bass alongside the guitar. A final visit to the RJ catalogue closes the album with a fun take on “They’re Red Hot”, complete with kazoo. The other cover is John Lee Hooker’s “It Ain’t Right” on which Jim Zeller plays harp. So, all the covers are extremely familiar to blues fans. But what of the original material?

“15 Years” is a departure with more of a pop/rock approach than most of the album, quite an attractive tune with Seb lamenting the end of a lengthy relationship; “Blue For You” is an uptempo piece that fits more with the one man band approach and has some good guitar work but the very repetitive “My Mama Said” manages to outstay its welcome despite being only two minutes in length.

One suspects that this sort of one man band approach is always better live than on record where the rather limited palette can drag a little. Of course, the traditional one man band would have Seb playing all instruments at the same time, harp on a rack, guitar and vocals and all percussion via a stomp board whereas here the harp is clearly overdubbed (it’s behind the vocals throughout the JR medley) and you can certainly hear bass on some tracks, notably “32-20 Blues”.

Although this reviewer is not familiar with The Respectables it is likely that this is a big departure for Seb so all credit to him for returning to the blues that underpins most rock music.

Reviewer John Mitchell is a blues enthusiast based in the UK who enjoys a wide variety of blues and roots music, especially anything in the ‘soul/blues’ category. Favorites include contemporary artists such as Curtis Salgado, Tad Robinson, Albert Castiglia and Doug Deming and classic artists including Bobby Bland, Howling Wolf and the three ‘Kings’. He gets over to the States as often as he can to see live blues.


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 Featured Blues Review – 6 of 6 

imageDoug Duffey and BADD – Play the Blues

Out of the Past Music

www.dougduffeyandbadd.com

CD: 9 Songs, 50 Minutes

Styles: Louisiana Blues, Soul, Roots, Americana, All Original Songs

“Blues are the songs of despair,” said the late, great Mahalia Jackson, “but gospel songs are the songs of hope.” Once in a blue moon, however, a blues album comes along that’s so warm and good-natured beneath its tough exterior that hope clearly shines through. Case in point? Play the Blues, the newest release from North Louisiana’s Doug Duffey and BADD. Featuring nine nifty original tracks, it pumps one’s spirits up from start to finish. Fans of Delbert McClinton will love poignant, beautifully-orchestrated ballads such as “A Memory Left to Lose,” while those who crave a good barroom stomp will favor “The Things We Used to Do,” the album’s opener. There’s truly something for everyone on here, whether a newcomer or veteran of the genre. Instrumentally, Duffey’s piano and Dan Sumner’s growling guitar are a perfect match. Sometimes they overpower the vocals, but this is a small flaw in an otherwise-great CD.

Doug Duffey was inducted into the Louisiana Hall of Fame in 2001 and the National Blues Hall of Fame in 2009. With his Blues Hall of Fame induction, he was also named as a “Louisiana Ambassador of the Blues.” Born in Monroe, LA in 1950, Duffey began singing and playing piano at an early age, composing and performing professionally by age fourteen. His first single, recorded in Nashville in 1970, was chosen by Billboard, Cashbox and Record World as “Pick Hit” and broke into the top 100 charts. He has been called “one of the most prolific songwriters living in Louisiana” and has recorded eleven critically acclaimed CDs of original material to date. His career spans over half a century, bringing him international success.

Dan Sumner is an internationally-acclaimed guitarist who performs and tours the world regularly with acts such as Doug Duffey and BADD, Louisiana Soul Revival, Steve Howell, and the Louis Romanos Quartet. His shredders of choice are two custom-made Benedetto archtop jazz guitars. He owns and operates Fort Sumner Studio, where he has recorded and/or produced dozens of albums by artists such as Astro Motel, Logan and the Legendaries, The Vidrines, Gin Mobsters, and Tito and the Fabulous Freeloaders.

This album’s first and final numbers are like gorgeous antique bookends, even though they’re brand-spanking new. In the middle are sensational songs such as “Evil,” “Big Easy Street Blues,” “My Driving Wheel,” and “You Got That Somethin’.” Every one of them shows just how skilled Duffey and Sumner are at their respective instruments. “Driving Wheel” is also a surefire hit, bringing Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment to mind: “I arm myself in faith, trim the wicks, light vigil lamps. I cross myself and kiss the icons. I am indelibly stamped, ‘cause there ain’t nothing I can do but pray for protection from assault…” Evocative imagery indeed.

Perhaps the most astounding thing about Play the Blues is that it’s only this band’s sophomore offering. If this is their very best the second time around, imagine their third album!

Reviewer Rainey Wetnight is a 40 year old female Blues fan. She brings the perspective of a younger blues fan to reviews. A child of 1980s music, she was strongly influenced by her father’s blues music collection.


 

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Prairie Crossroads Blues Society – Champaugn, IL

Prairie Crossroads Blues Society presents our IBC fundraiser for The Smokers Blues Band Sunday January 12 at Pipa’s Pub, 604 S. Country Fair Dr. in Champaign. They’re heading to Memphis later in January as Central Illinois representatives to compete in the Blues Foundation’s International Blues Challenge. Prairie Crossroads Blues Society hosts two Blues Jams each month. Jams are held the 2nd Sunday of each month from 4 to 7 pm and the 4th Wednesday of each month from 7 to 10 pm. The host band plays the 1st set and then it’s opened up to all the jammers in the house. Jams are held at Pipa’s Pub, 604 S. Country Fair Dr. in Champaign. Other bands hosting Jams in 2020 include, the Blues Deacons, Cobalt Blues Band and Jack Whittle Band. Bring your instrument and join in the fun. For more info visit: http://prairiecrossroadsblues.org

Crossroads Blues Society – Rockford, IL

Crossroads Blues Society has many shows coming up in the Rockford, IL area. The monthly shows at the Hope and Anchor in Loves Park continue $5 cover, 8 to 11:30 PM: Sat Jan 11th – Brandon Santini, Sat Feb 8th – Mike Wheeler. Lyran Society, Rockford, IL, 7 to 10 PM No Cover  Fri Jan 3rd – Dave Weld and the Imperial Flames. Mary’s Place, Rockford, IL, 7 to 10 PM, $10 admission – Wed Jan 15th – Tas Cru

The Illinois Central Blues Club – Springfield, IL

The Illinois Central Blues Club has announced the line-up of talent for Blue Monday live performances and other shows held at the Alamo, 115 North Fifth, Springfield, IL from 7:00pm to 11:00pm. Additional information on any performer listed below is available upon request.   Jan 6 – Billy Galt & the Blues Deacons, Jan 13 – Kilborn Alley Blues Band, Jan 20 – Tas Cru & His Band Of Tortured Souls, Jan 27 – The Groove Daddies.


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